It was telling that as the cast came back for more, I was miffed that the horses had been allowed only a single bow and I needed reminding that our appreciation was not for the six-feet-tall, fabric and cane creations – impressive as they are – but the puppeteers beneath them.
Morpurgo's books never guarantee a positive payoff and – in a scene designed to empty the audience of emotion – Joey's fate is uncertain to the end.
Such is the level of skill, so perfectly is every movement reproduced from life, that despite the obvious fact of their artificiality, and the frequent sight of the operators' lower bodies, all you see are living, breathing, galloping forces of nature.
All the more astonishing when you consider the two main equine stars each have three people working them at any one time, all required to be in absolute harmony with one another to achieve such a truthful outcome.
That our focus is on the horse rather than the human is only right, as the equine experience is at the heart of this stunning, moving Nick Stafford adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel for children, one of the biggest productions in the National Theatre's history, now set to break The Lowry's box office record as well.
The story centres on one of those horses, Joey, and his teenage owner, Albert (the excellent Lee Armstrong). Their close relationship, which generates much of the warmth of the production, was inspired by Morpurgo's witnessing of a young boy, previously so tormented by a stammer that he had become mute, talking freely to a horse on the author's farm for troubled children.
When Albert's father (a loathsome but still recognisably human Steven Hillman) sells Joey into the army at the outbreak of World War I, the horse finds itself serving on both sides after being captured by Germans on the Western Front. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Albert determines to enlist and track down his beloved pal.
Along the way, Joey witnesses the worst agonies of man and horse in equal measure, the first of which – a line of horribly scarred conscripts – recalls Morpurgo's own boyhood horror at seeing the burns suffered in wartime by a family friend.
The puppetry (from Handspring Puppet Company) is augmented by a talented cast, directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, and a back stage crew whose battle scenes are well realised; light and sound combining with choreography to add scale and drama to an inevitably limited cavalry charge.
Millions of horses pressed into service in World War I were denied a happy ending; rare examples exist of horses meeting a fate they deserved back in Blighty, but most were killed, while others were rewarded for their courage and fortitude by being sold off to French butchers.
I won't spoil the climax of War Horse except to say Morpurgo's books never guarantee a positive payoff and – in a scene designed to empty the audience of emotion – Joey's fate is uncertain to the end.
Alongside the blood and broken bodies of the Somme, less solemn moments have been added in, though some of the humour owes more to 'Allo 'Allo than the spirit of Morpurgo. But there are genuine moments of amusement, especially those courtesy of a goose puppet, whose laugh-aloud antics almost upstage the horses. But not quite.
When the spotlight falls on Joey for the first time, he is just a foal, too small to be manipulated from within, so the puppeteers stand around him. Yet, the skittishness and playfulness, the boldness and vulnerability of the young horse, these actions are animal, not mechanical, and accomplished with such sensitivity that, only two minutes in, I am blinking back a tear.
Then the horse reaching maturity, captured in a thrilling moment of theatre, supplies perhaps the highlight of the night.
In the age of the $300 million computer-generated 3D blockbuster, it says much for the stage version of War Horse that the art of puppetry, brilliantly executed, unenhanced by technology, is enough to move an audience to tears and, by the end, to their feet.
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