REVIEW: Warhorse @Brighton Centre

Paul Gustafson January 26, 2018

It’s close to two years to the day since the exciting announcement was made that the acclaimed National Theatre production of Warhorse would be coming to Brighton for a two week run – part of a prestigious tour of just a handful of lucky UK cities.

Warhorse premiered at the National Theatre in 2007 before eventually moving up the road to the New London Theatre. By the time it finished its run in March 2016 it had been seen by around 2.7 million people in the capital, with millions more seeing the show worldwide.

Now this iconic play has finally arrived at the Brighton Centre, and judging by the reaction of the packed audience on the first night it was well worth the wait for the city’s theatre lovers.

Warhorse is a simple story told against an epic background. A foal is bought by a struggling Devon farmer on a drunken whim, and the horse is entrusted to Albert, the farmer’s young son, who is tasked with raising the foal as a working animal which can eventually be sold on. But from the moment they meet there is a strong connection between Albert and the horse, who is named Joey by the boy. Both are innocents, and the rest of the play follows their story as they are separately drawn into the epic conflict of the First World War, with Joey first sold to the yeomanry cavalry and shipped abroad, and Albert, underage, enlisting shortly after in a quest to be reunited with his horse.

The play is based on Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling children’s book, with the horse’s journey at the centre. In many ways Joey is the most rounded ‘character’ in the play, with all the other characters, even Albert, deliberately drawn in a one-dimensional, children’s story book fashion. This being the case, and with help from the remarkable and breath-taking puppetry which literally appears to bring the animal to life in front of our eyes, we see events unfold from the horse’s perspective, allowing a powerful message about the pain and futility of war to be be told in a way that is neither judgemental nor partisan. It works brilliantly.

If the horses and puppeteers are the real stars of this show, they are also wonderfully supported by a cast of over thirty actors and musicians. There’s a charming and heart-warming performance at the centre from Thomas Dennis’s Albert, and Bob Fox is also excellent as the folk singing, accordion playing chorus, hauntingly delivering John Tam’s beautiful folk songs as they introduce and link the narrative.

Adrian Sutton’s fine orchestral score is at times bucolic and nostalgic, at others discordant and visceral. It’s full of power and emotion and highlights the story and the drama in all the right places.

A great strength of this play is its innovative, unfussy, multi-media staging, with Rae Smith’s brilliant design and Paule Constable’s wonderful use of lighting seamlessly transitioning scenes from peaceful rural pastures to terrifying battlefields.

Much credit must therefore go to the Warhorse team and to the Brighton Centre for transforming the auditorium into a sympathetic space which works for the full scope and scale of the drama. This is a wonderful play, and these adaptations have ensured that it remains a truly immersive and genuinely theatrical experience for the Brighton audience.

Warhorse, plays at the Brighton Centre, to February 10, 2018.

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