This adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book has been touring the UK and arrived this evening for its two-week run in Liverpool. It tells the moving story of Joey (Tom Stacy/Tom Quinn/ Anna Chessher), a half thoroughbred horse who is sold to a captain in the First World War and faces the horrific sights that both humans and animals endured.

Morpurgo tells of his desire to write a story that highlighted the universal suffering. This piece of theatre highlights the need for peace and how there is no divide between us only ones constructed for purpose.

Unlike the film version this adaptation tells the narrative through the fragmented lives and experiences of the people who suffer in the war, rather than focusing entirely on Joey’s tale. This does not detract from our connection with our main character Joey however, and highlights the lack of a voice that animals have. In particular, we follow Joey’s first owner, Albert (Thomas Dennis) who forms such a bond with Joey that he heads to war in search of him.

The design of the creatures are on par with the excellence of the human performances. The reveal of the War horse storming out through the shadows and erupting onto the harsh lights of the stage was breathtaking. The horse puppets are remarkable and are crewed by three puppeteers – dressed in their horses ‘team colours’. It is clear these puppeteers have studied meticulously the animals they are portraying and manage to capture the small attention to detail - from ear twitching to tail flicking. It really doesn’t take long to forget that these are controlled constructs and not living, breathing creatures. The horses are joined by a sprinkling of other animals, each one carefully rendered and performed with the same level of detail and love. It would be an insult not to mention how excellent the goose was.

Although this is seen as a traditional play, the story was enhanced by the songs that were sung by the cast. The opening of the play was an interesting one, the lights dimmed and the ‘Song Man’ (Bob Fox) walked calmly from the shadows, opened a book and began to sing a beautiful folk song. His appearances throughout the play were moving and tied the separate stories and struggles together. There were moments made epic by the entire cast singing together. These were used sparingly, which gave weight to the ensemble moments.

This piece of theatre is a phenomenal spectacle which stuns the senses with its stage transformation. It pulls no punches either, some of the imagery is surprisingly dark, a few of the scenes involving the wounded or the dead were extremely powerful. The use of the stage depth and shadows created some truly breath-taking cinematic moments. The lighting truly is one of the stars of this show. 

This production hits the expected notes of war beautifully – the tragedy, the atrocities, the absurdities and the undying hope of both Joey and Albert. However, it was interesting to see a significant focus on the struggles faced by Albert’s father as his alcoholism and guilt are highlighted, which certainly added some extra grittiness.

The performers worked alongside the puppeteers so well that it was awe-inspiring to see. This is a production that will take you on a journey through a range of emotions and has dramatically jaw dropping moments. An unmissable piece of theatre.

Reviewed: Beth Easton

Reviewed: 15th November 2017

North West End Rating: ★★★★★