WarHorse at Broadway Across Canada-4

The National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse premiered in Vancouver last night to a packed audience. Watching the life-size horses move on stage is the biggest draw to this Broadway Across Canada touring production. Each intricate head shake, leg kick, and breath is the mastery of South African puppetry company Handspring.

WarHorse at Broadway Across Canada-1

With a team of handlers for each horse, the work and choreography necessary to move each one naturally and in unison with others is an incredible skill. From young Joey as a foal (Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, Nick Lamedica) with his tiny, unstable legs and first movements right through to adult Joey supporting Britain’s soldiers, we were captivated.

War Horse National Tour photo
[The cast of the national tour of War Horse]

Not only are horses animated, but a goose (Gregory Manley) and pair of crows are also brought to life via puppetry. The simple stage contains a horizontal backdrop torn strip that projects the storyline through motion effects, live illustration, and other unique qualities that accentuate the production.

As the show begins in 1912 Devon, England, a simple stage set introduces the cast and choir, all dressed in period attire. A young Thoroughbred is being bid on by a group of buyers at an auction and winds up in the hands of Albert Narracott’s dad, Ted (Gene Gillette), for 39 guineas. This is a hardship to the family, already struggling to meet the mortgage. Son Albert begins to bond with Joey, through gentle play and trust.

Ted, fond of drinking, winds up taking on a stupid bar bet: if Joey can be trained to plow a certain distance in one week, the family may keep him. A loss would mean giving up the horse and farm.

“If you lose Joey, we lose everything.” – Rose Narracott (Maria Elena Ramirez)

Albert (marvelously portrayed by Michael Wyatt Cox) vows to spend the entire week training Joey and promises his mother that he won’t give up. Slowly but surely, Albert names the horse Joey (the horse responds favourably to that name), and in a last-minute miracle, the horse earns his keep. Having learned to plow later saves the horse’s life during wartime.

War Horse

Joey (Jon Hoche, Brian Robert Burns, Jessica Krueger) has a beautiful reddish colour that stands out from the other black horses, Topthorn (Jon Riddleberger, Curt James, Gregory Manley), Coco (Adam Cunningham, Aaron Haskell), and Heine (Brendan Murray, Caden Douglas). As war is announced between England and Germany and the Narracott finances begin to dwindle, Ted is forced to sell Joey to Lieutenant James Nicholls (Brendan Murray).

War Horse

When Albert learns of the betrayal, he’s furious and pleads with the officer to let him keep his horse. Joey however has grown strong and spirited, and Nicholls vows to take care of Joey, looking in his direction and declaring, “drive those Germans back and you can come back home”.

War Horse National Tour photo
[The cast of the national tour of War Horse]

As the second act shows the ugly, battered side of war, so too are we shown the toll it’s taken on the horses, as they are employed to pull heavy artillery and suffer the strikes and bombings. Albert winds up leaving home, joining the forces (even though he’s too young to enlist), and battling in the fields— anything to save Joey and bring him home to England. The beauty of the story is seeing it through a horse’s eyes. Joey finds himself caught in barbed wire in no-man’s land, causing a moment of lightness in battle when a soldier from each side waves the white flag and heads to the field to help the distraught horse.

At the tender end of the story, the boy saves Joey and brings him home. The two-hour (with one intermission) story is rich in detail and subplots, however I found a few spots where dialogue was hard to be heard (particularly towards the end of the show during the battle scenes). As well, my husband and I weren’t too fond of the side-stage singers who aimed to add a bit of atmosphere to the production but after awhile appeared superfluous.

War Horse

War Horse is sure to please audiences for Michael Morpurgo’s tender story of courage, loyalty, and friendship (story adapted for the production by Nick Stafford). The stagecraft is top-notch, the cast work well together, and those horses, as mentioned earlier, are just beautiful to watch in motion.

War Horse continues in Vancouver through September 29 at the Queen E Theatre. War Horse is presented by Broadway Across Canada and is part of a four-city tour including dates in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa.

All photos (where not watermarked) courtesy of Broadway Across Canada.

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