London theater review: Technically impressive ‘War Horse’ fails to dig deep

Aug. 9, 2015, 9:45 p.m.

The West End’s “War Horse” successfully showcases captivating stage pictures and astounding technical achievements to continue bringing in audiences and box office success (it’s been running since 2009 in the West End’s New London Theatre after a two-year run at the National Theatre). The production is well-executed, but the story doesn’t go much below the surface.

“War Horse” is set in the early 1900s in England, where drunk farmer Ted Narracott (Colm Gormley) spends his mortgage money on a foal that his son Albert (James Backway) names Joey. As Albert raises Joey, they form a tight bond, but are separated when Ted sells Joey into the army as World War I breaks out. Joey ends up working for the Germans; Albert runs away, lies about his age and joins the army. Eventually, despite everything, they end up together. It’s well-crafted and well-packaged, with an unsurprising happily-ever-after conclusion to top it off.

The biggest technical achievement is, of course, the horses, Joey and Topthorn, who join him in the war effort. Operated by three puppeteers each, they are majestic, life-sized, beautiful and believable. Everything from their excitement to their fear registers, allowing us to really connect with them. This, of course, is a crucial point -– without engaging with the horses, there would be no story. With it, their stories pull on the heartstrings, perhaps even more so than if they were human. When Albert is forced to separate from Joey, there were many wet eyes in the audience.

And it’s not just the horses that are technically perfect. The show combines perfectly harmonized a cappella vocals with artistic and evocative projections that set the varying scenes -– from bucolic England to the trenches of World War I. It’s pretty to watch and listen to, but those factors can’t carry a story that doesn’t feel very meaningful or important in the end.

There’s never really any doubt in our minds that Joey and Albert will be reunited, making the way the production tells the story of the war crucial. Unfortunately, it feels a bit too mechanical; of course the plowing bet Joey won in Act I is the reason he lives in Act II; small details return in non-subtle ways. Backway is earnest and energetic as Albert, who never stops looking for his horse, but the character isn’t written to have much emotional range beyond that. The death of supporting characters and Albert’s temporary blinding by tear gas doesn’t do enough to make us feel that the Great War is actually taking place.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that this story was based on a children’s book (written by Michael Morpurgo). “War Horse” is engaging and flows smoothly from one scene to the next without missing a beat, but it never goes very far below the surface. There’s never any real danger from the war, but the story is sweet and the stage pictures are stunning, which is enough to satisfy most audiences, time and time again.

Contact Noemi Berkowitz at noemi11 ‘at’

This is part of the Stanford Daily’s summer feature on London theater. To see all of our coverage, click here.

Noemi Berkowitz is the Chief Theater Critic and a desk editor at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Lincoln, Nebraska, double majoring in theater and psychology. You may see her reciting Shakespeare, wearing tie-dye and hiking. Contact her at noemi11 'at'

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