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Review: War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre is an absolute masterclass in performance

By Charlie Harman

Audiences were wowed by a fabulous display of puppetry and storytelling yesterday as War Horse launched its 18-day run at The Marlowe Theatre.

The play - based on the 1982 bestselling book by Michael Morpurgo - focuses on the relationship between infantryman Albert Narracott and his horse Joey as they enter the carnage of the First World War.

With the National Theatre's original 2007 production receiving such acclaim, expectations were high amongst the Canterbury audience and these were fully fulfilled by the extremely talented touring cast.

War Horse Picture: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
War Horse Picture: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

A fantastic performance from relative newcomer Scott Miller in the lead (human) role brilliantly conveyed the innocence of the character. The interplay between Miller and Jo Castleton - playing his mum Rose - was especially gripping and emotive.

Special mention must also be made of Danny Hendrix, whose anguish at being sent to war is incredibly palpable and makes the younger audience members question 'What if that were me?'.

While his shaking at one point is almost uncomfortably excessive, it is a pinpoint representation of the shellshock suffered by many who served in the First World War.

But the true star of the show naturally has to be the puppeteers, whose precise movements make the audience so emotionally attached to what is essentially a wooden frame.

Every breath the horses - Joey and Topthorn - took made their bodies rise, finger twitches made their ears flick constantly throughout the play and any injuries inflicted on the horses' legs saw the puppeteers putting less weight on the affected leg.

Particularly effective was the moment when Albert first jumps on Joey's back, a feat which seems at first impossible considering the seemingly light construction.

Lighting was used to great effect, lending the play a cinematic feel. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg (7497265)
Lighting was used to great effect, lending the play a cinematic feel. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg (7497265)

The realism was further cemented by the supremely proficient vocalisations performed by the operators, from the horses' whinnies to the goose's honking - these noises perfectly complemented the soundscape which gave the show a strong cinematic feel.

Despite not being a musical, the beautiful vocal and instrumental work by Ben Murray highlighted Joey's most stressful moments and proved an effective contrast to the loud cacophany of war.

The minimalist set doesn't hamper the production at all and actually allows the cast to add movement to what traditionally would be static scenery. For example, the motion of a ship crossing the channel is expertly demonstrated by simply lifting and lowering two railings while a flotilla is projected onto the thin screen above the stage.

The screen, while small, is also used to great effect and ingeniously made to look like an important piece of paper torn out of a sketchbook. The projections all add to the story and make the stage and scenery look ten times grander than they are.

Being a cynic, I almost hoped that I could have something to complain about before going in but in this absolute gem of a show there isn't a fault to be found.

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