Exploding on to the stage like an errant artillery shell, War Horse is no less devastating and beautiful in its current iteration than it was when it first galloped onto the Melbourne stage in 2012.
War Horse, beginning its life as a children’s novel, follows the experiences of a young horse named Joey prior to, and during, the First World War. Through Joey’s relationship with young Albert Narracott (Scott Miller), War Horse pulls no punches in detailing the harrowing realities of France 1914-1918 from both a soldier and animal perspective. Realities which at differing times leaves the audience buoyant, terrified and emotionally destroyed.
It would be remiss of me to begin this review with anything less than utter admiration for the exceptional puppet work on display, developed by the award-winning Handspring Puppet Company. Each piece is nothing short of a design marvel, prominently on show through the stunning horse puppets that make up Joey and Topthorn (Twelve puppeteers on rotation). The mastery continues through the cheeky Goose (Jonathan Cobb) that lives on the Narracott farm and the menacing carrion birds that circle a scarred battlefield and peck at the dead. Each of the puppets is deftly operated by a team of puppeteers and, to their great credit, every nuance and emotion is so real and believable that one forgets the puppeteers are there – they create one living, breathing being. The one or two times the puppeteers make themselves known is used to exceptionally moving effect. Bravo to Toby Sedgwick, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for their combined efforts in directing puppetry across the board.
In a show dominated by beautiful puppetry, the cast of humans hold their own with world-class performances. Scott Miller as Albert Narracott embodies a boy drawn into war with a love for his horse that is completely and utterly believable. Danny Hendrix as Billy Narracott is heart-breaking in his portrayal of a fearful young man broken by his experiences, yet resolute in his sense of duty to his family. Christopher Naylor is a welcome presence as he brings a warmth and sense of justice for all living things to his portrayal of the German Captain Friedrich Muller, tired and weary from his days fighting at the front. Lastly, Ben Murray as the Songperson is hauntingly beautiful, his voice blends perfectly with the wonderful score (Adrian Sutton – Composer and John Tams – Songmaker) and elevates the already-atmospheric performance to a whole new level. Rae Smith’s drawings and Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s projection designs gorgeously enhance the storytelling, in a design that has no doubt influenced the craft since the show’s premiere.
Having undergone a recent multi-million-dollar refurbishment, the Regent Theatre looks better than ever supported by exemplary sound and lighting design by Christopher Shutt and Paule Constable, respectively. Constable’s effective lighting design makes full use of the deep Regent stage, using light and dark tones to great effect, and adding a sense of magic and tension. Shutt’s immersive design keeps you on your toes as gunshots appear to come from all around you. The battle scenes made acutely distressing by the overlapping explosions and ‘whiz-bangs’ pierced by the screams of a terrified animal. If you haven’t worked it out by now, this show is not for the faint-hearted. Despite having seen War Horse before, I spent the majority crying inconsolably.
War Horse is a story of grief, futility and horrors of war with a reminder that all living things feel and love. It is without a doubt the best play to hit Melbourne in recent memory. Do not miss it.
War Horse is playing a limited season at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne. https://warhorseonstage.com.au/