War Horse is a major crowd pleaser. It’s an adaptation from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo which, written from a horse’s point of view, tracks his story from birth through to the end of World War One and the relationship he has with his young owner; a teenager called Albert.
But in the stage play the first of the big changes is that the story switches to a third person POV, in which we observe the story from our own perspective, rather than the horse’s. I suspect that immediately weakens the emotional sensitivity of what many consider a classic children’s novel.
I first saw the NT live screening of the National Theatre production a few years ago and put down my disappointment to the fact that I wasn’t witnessing the show in the flesh. So last night was my chance to recalibrate my opinion with good seats in the Dress Circle.
The fact is the story is relatively far fetched, not impossibly so, but I found it difficult to engage with anyone in the play, male or equine alike, and so found the story slightly fantastical.
The next problem to overcome is the acting. In this touring production, showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, it is, at best, passable. And the script, at points, is just plain silly – with too many ‘All ‘Allo type dialogue moments. (For those of us old enough to know or care it’s an appallingly mediocre BBC sitcom set amongst the French resistance in occupied Germany written in Franglais and faux German.)
I found my attention wandering constantly after the early impact and occasional highlights, of the excellent puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, wore off. For sure, the horses are wonderful (but the Goose is even better).
The staging can be highly dramatic and some of the (extremely loud) battlefield scenes, as the titular Joey becomes a ‘War Horse” and endures the travails of the front line, are quite spectacular and genuinely original. But it can also be a bit limp. The device of the torn paper on which rather uninspiring animations are projected has the effect of compressing the stage and forcing your shoulders down to peer into an almost letterbox-like action area.
The fact is, special effects do not make a great entertainment experience on their own. A spectacle, yes. But the structure and framework (script mainly) is so weak that it becomes a constant anticlimax with little in the way of emotional engagement.
I wouldn’t recommend this.