War Horse (West End, London)

Last night I went to see the play, War Horse, in London's West End at the New London Theatre. I had never heard of the play, or the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo on which it is based, but from the little I read about it before attending, I had high expectations. In all of the blurbs and review abstracts, it seemed to be unusually successful, or maybe just successful in an unusual way.

The two main characters are Albert, a young man of about 16, and his horse Joey. Albert's alcoholic father bought Joey while drunk, out of spite for his brother and Albert's uncle. Albert raises the horse, only to see his father sell the horse to the British Army during the First World War. Albert runs away from home, lying about his age to join the Army and find his horse. Eventually they are reunited, with Albert blinded by tear gas and Joey facing euthanasia.

Joey is played/manipulated by three puppeteers, who do an amazing job of breathing life into a character that is clearly not a real horse. It does not matter. The mastery these puppeteers have is incredible. It's almost as if they can make the horse's lungs expand and collapse along with the action. When the horse kicks or rears, suspension of disbelief is no problem.

I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the front row, albeit at the very end of the row at the edge of the stage, which gave me a unique vantage point for much of the play. Near the play's climax, one critical scene took place literally at my feet, in front of the stage which had been partially removed at intermission to mimic war damage. At times I could hear actors whispering to each other; at other times, the action was happening at the far end of the stage, but even then it was never so far away as to not be able to enjoy it all.