I'm always struck by a phrase that I hear many times in life that the best things can often be simple.
That might seem an odd phrase to use for a story that is as complicated to stage as War Horse but of the two things that stand out most in this production worthy of the standing ovation, it's the simple drama and love between a boy and his horse which stands out.
At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the Cavalry and shipped to France. He’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land. Albert, who remained on his parents’ Devon farm, cannot forget Joey. Though still not old enough to enlist he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.
The journey that lead character Albert (Thomas Dennis, from Milton Keynes) goes on before the horse goes on to the front line is worthy of much praise for the simple dynamic between a loving but worn down mother, a drunker father and a son who gets his father out of the scrapes he gets into. Albert's training of the titular horse Joey makes for a lovely heart-warming start to the show.
But from the end of the first act and throughout the second, the show simply stages the most brutal acts of the First World War, the constant gun fire (which was so loud and shocking I actually spilled my drink), the carnage and death of both human and horses on the front line and the appalling treatment that soldiers have to the environment around them. There are several tricks employed, but in no way does this story hide away from the brutality. That comes despite it being based on a Michael Morpugo book primarily aimed at children.
The star of the show is Joey who almost completely over shadows the human cast. The puppets put together by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company are outstanding and the transformation from foal into the full blown horse is an outstanding moment in a show packed with a high class production. The work, effort and energy the puppeteers provide to bring Joey to life is fantastic watch. It's totally captivating to see how it works and yet still sells the show perfectly.
It is perhaps a little long at a nearly two hours 40 minutes including the interval but it never seems to drag despite its long running time. I won't spoil the ending of the film but I suspect there were very few dry eyes in the house by the play's conclusion.
War Horse can be seen at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday October 6. Tickets for the show can be booked by calling the box office on 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.co.uk/miltonkeynes.