War Horse's message of hope coming to Bradford

Next year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and War Horse returns to Bradford. Phil Penfold reports.

HIT SHOW: The National Theatres War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, returns to Bradford next year.
HIT SHOW: The National Theatres War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, returns to Bradford next year.

The statistics are mind-boggling.

The National Theatre’s much-loved and moving production of War Horse – based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo – ran in the West End for seven years. That was after its world premiere at the National Theatre in 2007. At the National alone it was seen by almost a quarter of a million people, who attended one of 206 performances. That is pretty much capacity. Tickets were like gold dust.

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And when the emotive story of the horse who was uprooted from his west country home and went off to the trenches and battlefields of the First World War went on tour, at the Bradford Alhambra, over 34,000 people booked to see the production for its limited run of just a few weeks.

Now War Horse returns, and already the Alhambra’s box office lines are glowing – Yorkshire audiences cannot get enough of this powerful tale, in which a young lad sees his equine companion Joey requisitioned to fight in the army. What can Albert do but attempt to get him home, and back to safety?

The show’s assistant puppetry director, Matthew Forbes, saw the original production and reveals: “As soon as I did, I told my agent ‘Get me in to that show. I don’t care what I do, I can be fifth rifleman from the right, but get me in – I have to do it!’”

Matthew had his request granted, and is now one of the longest-serving members of the dedicated cast. This current tour will see the company visit key venues for a year and a half, and, says Matthew, “Bradford is, without doubt, one of our favourite places – the response from audiences is wonderful”.

He may be long-serving, but, like everyone involved on stage, he still finds the story “profoundly moving, and very touching. I know of one of our puppeteering team who was with the show for about four or five months before he was able to restrain his tears at the end of every performance. It really does ‘get’ you like that.”

The National had to go to the acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa when they realised that they would have to do something realms away from the theatrical norm to realise their vision of showing ‘real’ horses and animals on stage.

“The incredible thing is that”, you are aware that this is a life-size puppet, being animated by three performance artists,” says Matthew. “You know that. You can see their legs underneath the ‘horse’, and standing next to its head. But then, before a minute is out, Joey isn’t a puppet, or a ‘thing’, but has a life of his own. I think that, on average, there is about a ten second suspension of belief, and then you are hooked.

“We always talk about him as Joey. He’s not an inanimate prop. You are totally immersed in his story, which is one of loyalty, friendship and courage, and you are seeing the war and the action through his eyes, which is a completely different perspective.”

The original Joey was so important to the way that the play develops that he is now on display in the renowned theatre collection at the V and A in London. There have been other Joeys, since the production has travelled the world – to, among other countries, The Netherlands, the USA (where it was garlanded with awards on Broadway as well as touring across the nation), Japan, Canada, Australia and Germany. At every theatre, there have been nightly standing ovations. Bradford is the only Yorkshire date on the UK tour.

Joey, explains Matthew, “took two years to develop, right after the first idea of making Michael’s book into a living play was given the green light. We had to see how it could be feasible, how he could move – not just walking naturally, but also cantering and galloping. It all had to be completely believable.

“There are several puppeteers, all working to a rota, but only a trio each night, creating Joey. Incredibly, because he is made of all natural materials, such as wood and gauze, he isn’t that heavy at all. But, and here’s the big but, he is also ridden by characters in the story, and the puppeteers also have to carry a grown man’s weight as well at several points.

“They are all trained for several months before they can appear in front of an audience, and one of them told me that he thought that, at the end of a performance, it was like ‘Walking around with your hand held up, and holding a bag of potatoes above your head – for the entire evening1’ I agreed with him – I’ve done it too!”

All of the dozen actors responsible for bringing Joey to life spend a long time studying horse movements, both on video, and at real-stables. They are coached by experts and, quite apart from getting the flow of the horse perfect, they also have to learn Joey’s various characteristics – the noises he makes, his breathing, the way that he senses things around him, and the way that he uses his ears. Each of the three performers always takes responsibility for the same section of Joey. There is no swapping about.

So engaged are audiences, says Matthew, “that Joey even gets fan letters of his own and, in fact, I think that over the years, he’s met more important people, monarchs, heads of state, big names, that would put an ‘ordinary’ politician to shame.

“And, we believe, that there will be added interest as we go into 2018, because that is the 100th anniversary of the end of that appalling ‘war to end all wars’, and I do genuinely believe that people will tie in strongly to the emotions of that event. However, what comes across, we all think, is that fundamentally this is a story about peace. Michael’s ‘message’, I think, is that there is always hope.”

***

Matthew says: “If you haven’t seen War Horse, then don’t get the idea that this is something out of Disney, or Pixar animation. It isn’t. It has opened up a whole new area of stagecraft, to extent that the National are already talking about using this process in other productions. Unique is a much misused word. But I think here I can justifiably say it. The Joey that you will see will be unique! And you are unlikely to forget the experience.”

War Horse, Bradford Alhambra, February 14-March 10, 2018.

Box office on 01274 432000 or to book online visit www.bradford-theatres.co.uk.