Review: War Horse opens to a standing ovation at Milton Keynes Theatre

War Horse
War Horse

As we approach the month which brought an end to hostilities in the First World War exactly 100 years ago, it's perhaps fitting that a play as powerful as War Horse arrived in Milton Keynes tonight as it continues its tenth anniversary tour.

Following eight successful years in London's West End at the New London Theatre, War Horse has picked up numerous theatrical awards, visited 11 different countries worldwide and has been seen by more than seven million people.

However when St Albans-born award-winning children's writer Michael Morpurgo penned what he thought would be a book in the mould of Black Beauty aimed at school-aged youngsters, little did he expect War Horse to become such a world-wide sensation and to make him a household name.

The story features Devonshire farm boy Albert Narracott (played by Thomas Dennis) who forges a real bond with a horse named Joey which was purchased as a foal at an auction by his drunken father Ted Narrocott (Gwilym Lloyd). In a drunken stupor, Ted outbids his own brother Arthur (William Ilkley) to the sum of 39 guineas… and as that was his mortgage money, he returned home to Rose (Jo Castleton), his extremely angry wife.

Albert gains the young Colt's confidence as they grow up together while a bet between the two Narracott brothers sees a two-year-old Joey grow to become a strong stallion able to pull a plough which means Ted wins the bet.

However when the British Army come calling in 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War, Joey is sold to amateur artist Lieutenant Nicholls (Ben Ingles) by Ted for £100, once again much to the fury of Albert and Rose.

Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg's brilliant 2011 film will already know the War Horse story, but for those who haven't, Albert lies about his age and joins up but soon finds himself embroiled in the cruelty and brutality of war first hand – and he's especially horrified at the way the horses are treated.

The scene of a cavalry charge against a German machine gun battery see Lieutenant Nicholls killed along with most of his battalion while Joey survives only to end up on the German side of the trenches. There's much suffering, the war being well described by Private David Taylor (Toyin Omari-Kinch) as he and Albert take shelter. However when he writes a letter home for Albert, he certainly doesn''t tell the truth.

The battle scenes are magnificent using just lighting and sound with the minimum of props. A farm plough becomes a gun carriage while fencing from the farm turn into the railings on a troop ship. There's also a huge British tank and a massive gun which is hauled by half dead horses under the lash of a cruel German sergeant.

Throughout the two hours 45 minutes of the show (including a 20 minute interval), a clever graphic projection of sketchbook pencil drawings sets the scene; from depictions of rural life in tranquil Devon to the horrors that Albert and Joey encounter on Flanders Field and the killing grounds of the Somme.

If there is a star in this stunning National Theatre production, then for me it's undoubtedly the 12 puppeteers of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company who bring the title character to life. After a few minutes you hardly notice Joey's three operators for his head, heart and hind. And it's the same clever puppetry which operates Topthorn, another magnificent horse which joins Joey on the battlefield.

Each trio of puppet masters get their horses to trot, gallop and canter so realistically while making all the right sounds: a whinny or a snort along with panting breath.

There is a large cast of National Theatre actors, many playing two parts as the scene switched between the British and German front lines. Impressive was passive German office Friedrich Muller (Peter Becker) who attempts to switch identities and become a medical orderly in a bid to avoid the front. His slightly comic-style attempt to speak English reminded me of Arthur Bostrom's French policeman in 'allo 'allo!

Thomas Dennis is great as Albert while the Narracott family – dad Ted, mum Rose, Uncle Arthur and cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) – make the parts their very own. Without going into too much detail, you've probably guessed that Albert is finally reunited with Joey in a moving scene which brings a tear to many eyes.

The show's background music might well have been composed by Edward Elgar himself, while musician Bob Fox deserves all the accolades for his accordion playing and singing. A folk singer in the tradition style, he has a fabulous voice while the songs bring about light relief against the sound of war. Then as the whole cast form up as a choir, the accompaniment comes from Bob's accordion and provides a moving distraction from the brutality.

Fortunately there are other lighter moments in the play; one uttered by a sergeant regarding discipline in the ranks after Albert joins up, but this is merely lost as the horror returns.

War Horse is a truly enthralling piece of theatre and the packed Milton Keynes audience certainly showed their appreciation on opening night with a standing ovation. And I can't forget the loud applause at the final curtain as a puppet goose – which had tried constantly to get into the farm house – took a bow alongside the other actors before it is quickly ushered off stage to roars of laughter.

The War Horse tour plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 6 October with shows each night at 7.30pm (Monday to Saturday) plus a matinee today (Thursday, 20 September) at 2.30pm. There are also further afternoon performances each Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes