Writer Michael Morpurgo calls his magnum opus, Warhorse, an anthem for peace.
Certainly, a play’s influence has never been so persuasive after sitting, enthralled, at last night’s opening at Milton Keynes Theatre, my heart in my mouth as I watched a cavalry charge into enemy guns.
Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, which touched the hearts and souls of a generation of children, later spawned a Spielberg film which went on to move millions of people around the globe.
But it was the National Theatre’s remarkable 2007, multi award-winning, stage play which has probably had the greatest effect.
Nick Stafford’s adaptation, coupled with astonishing production, is storytelling at its finest.
This powerful and poignant play is an NT favourite – it is back there briefly this Christmas – and has had runs in the West End, toured nationally and internationally.
It has been a decade since the National Theatre first put the reins on this moving World War One story and it has been seen by more than seven million people. They have cried and laughed, sat mesmerised, aghast, and horrified.
This nag’s longevity is phenomenal and is unlikely to ever be put out to pasture, whatever the producers say.
And its success is not just down to a touching human story about a boy’s search through the battlefields of The Somme for his missing horse, Joey, although that obviously tugs at the heartstrings (boy, does it ever).
But it’s the game-changing, lifesize, horse puppets, from the South-African based Handspring Puppet Company, which are show-stopping winners.
It almost seems a misnomer to call them puppets because after a few minutes the audience forgets that there are two (surely exhausted) handlers inside working the animals’ legs and a third in charge of the head, the mane shaking off flies, the ears pricked and more.
They appear to take on a life of their own, galloping across the stage, kicking out, nuzzling up to the ensemble and fighting for survival on a battlefield.
You will fall in love with Joey, whose exploits we follow from unwanted foal to courageous war horse on the Front Line (and, yes, you will sob so bring plenty of tissues).
And his nemesis, the big black Topthorn, a highly-strung thoroughbred cashiered into the British Cavalry for the big push through barbed wire into No Man’s Land.
The movement director and horse choreographer (yes, really) Toby Sedgewick, must have studied horses for months to capture their gaits, behaviour, breathing and temperament.
The show’s original directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, created a theatrical phenomenon featuring a large ensemble of actors, horses – and their 12 wranglers – an inquisitive goose and, during one scene, a terrifying WWI tank that scares Joey and does a good job of frightening half the youngsters in the audience.
The stage is largely empty but superbly lit by banks of spotlights. The back of the stage is shrouded in mist throughout, from which the villagers and horses emerge, ghost-like.
Above is a video backcloth in the shape of a torn piece of paper which, it later emerges, has been ripped from a sketch book.
It’s an extraordinary show, telling a story that is almost wasted on the young.
I don’t know what Morpurgo was thinking but a few very small children sitting near me last night were terrified with one little boy slunk so low in his seat, with his hands over his eyes, that he missed most of the action. It is more suited to 12-plus.
There are pistol shots during the performance that made last night’s entire audience jump in their seats with shock. The combination of stirring music, lights and sound effects, is simultaneously thrilling but also frequently scary.
The story is told episodically, like chapters in a book. War Horse opens in the summer of 1912 in a small Devonshire village.
A headstrong little colt is being sold at auction and a bidding war breaks out between drunken farmer Ted Narracott (Gwilym Lloyd) and his more respectable brother, Arthur.
Ted recklessly pays over the odds for the horse, using the family’s mortgage money. His wife is furious but their teenage son, Albert (Thomas Dennis, commanding as the strong, brave and heroic protagonist) is delighted, especially when he’s given the task of breaking the horse in and caring for it.
Two years later and war breaks out. The men in the village volunteer and the army is offering £100 for horses. Albert’s feckless dad sells Joey without a thought for his son’s feelings.
From there on the narrative follows Joey’s time at war – and what a roller-coaster it is – and his young owner’s attempts to track him down.
It is an evocative story, bursting with humanity and warmth, but doesn’t hold back on the brutality of a conflict which saw 10million people die and more than that in equine casualties.
Those horses that did make it to the end were mostly sold for meat to save on the expense of bringing them back to England.
War Horse is a real weepie, you just can’t help yourself. The effects are wondrous but the story will break your heart. Unmissable.
War Horse plays at Milton Keynes Theatre until Oct 6 before touring to Birmingham Hippodrome (Oct 10 – Nov 3), the National Theatre, London (Nov 8 – Jan 5), Glasgow SEC (Jan 15 – Feb 2), Sunderland Empire (Feb 6 – 23), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (Feb 27 – Mar 16), Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent (Mar 27 – Ap 6), Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin (Ap 10 – 27) and Auckland Civic Centre (June 21 – July 7).