A million horses were taken from Britain to France to “fight” in the First World War; only 62,000 returned. Their treatment and the horrors they endured matched those of the soldiers who rode and led them.
The story of these loyal and willing animals is brilliantly brought to life in Warhorse, which has been on and off the London stage since October 2007 and has been running at the New London Theatre since March 2009. This is puppetry at its highest and most magical level. The technical brilliance of the Handspring Puppet Company dazzles the audience into soon believing the life-size animals rearing up before them are the real deal. Every twitch and flicker and heartbeat is magically conveyed by a cast of five horses manipulated by twelve puppeteers blended into the animals’ fabric.
Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, Warhorse is far from a simple children’s tale. It is hard-edged, ripe with barrack room language and scenes that jolt and shock. It follows the tale of a pony, bought at a bitterly fought auction between rival farmer brothers, that is tamed and befriended by the farmer’s son before being sold to the army for service in France. It is wounded, captured by the Germans and rescued by the French in scenes that mirror the brutally shattering war experiences of troops on both sides of the conflict.
Set against a simple backdrop of battlefield visuals and with occasional outbursts of mournfully lyrical songs, the action flows across the stage and into the auditorium to become totally involving. It’s absorbing, often moving and continually exciting theatre with a difference. Punch & Judy was never like this.