Thursday, March 1, 2012


29 FEB 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Puppeteer James Retter, and 'Joey'

TORONTO - Amongst a host of other things, some best forgotten, the ’60s gave birth to a poster that read: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

It’s a notion reborn and given flesh in WAR HORSE, Nick Stafford’s much-heralded stage adaptation of the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. A presentation of the National Theatre of Great Britain, where the show first saw the light of day, WAR HORSE opened in its Canadian première Tuesday night at the Princess of Wales, featuring an all-Canadian cast.

The story, however, remains true Brit — a sort of equine retelling of Oliver Twist, in which a well-born steed (a hunter, no less) is torn from his natural milieu of grace and privilege and forced to endure unimaginable deprivation, surviving only through his own in-born nobility and the kindness of the British yeomanry, made manifest here in the person of a single-minded boy . It all starts on a farm in Devon in the days leading up to the Great War, when the drunken Ted Narracott (Brad Rudy) is goaded into buying a colt named Joey at auction — a colt subsequently raised up and trained, after a tongue lashing from Ted’s long-suffering wife (Tamara Bernier-Evans), by the couple’s young son, Albert (played by Alex Furber).

But no sooner has Joey matured and proved his worth than the war to end all wars breaks out, allowing Ted to sell the horse to the cavalry at a substantial profit, but without his son’s knowledge, opening up a major rift between father and son. Joey is shipped off to France, where he is soon caught up in the full horrors of war, and young Albert follows, lying about his age to enlist, convinced he will eventually find and save the horse he has grown to love.

And thanks to the genius of the folks at South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, Joey is a horse you will no doubt come to love as well, thanks to a series of near-miraculous puppets that not only trace Joey’s progress from a leggy colt to a full grown steed, but surround him in the process with an entire herd of lesser beasts, along with geese, crows and larks to enliven the story. As for the settings — from the bucolic simplicity of rural Devon through to the full horror of the front — it is all beautifully and simply evoked on a massive swatch of paper suspended over the stage echoing a partial page torn from a copy book, on which Joey was often sketched.

For the rest, adaptor Stafford and directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris (whose work is recreated on the Toronto stage by Alex Sims) drive the action forward through a series of often powerful dramatic vignettes, strung like narrative beads on the cord of Adrian Sutton’s Celtic-influenced music, hauntingly served up by Melanie Doane and others.

Staged with a deep commitment, WAR HORSE features some compelling performances, too, not the least of which is Furber’s , as he transforms himself from boy to man. Add in quality work from a score of puppeteers and from the likes of Bernier-Evans, young Addison Holley, Richard McMillan, Geoffrey Pounsett and Dylan Roberts, and it is almost possible to overlook the parade of ever-shifting bad accents — some, like Patrick Galligan’s (who lately seems to have a Shaw Festival stuck in his throat), in a single performance.

But for all its excellence, WAR HORSE drags in a second act that sets out to prove once again that war is hell, and while it avoids the one-damn-thing-after-another progression that turned Steven Spielberg’s movie into such a dolorous affair, it still feels highly manipulative. Which makes it, in the end, one suspects, a production destined to separate the romantics in the audience from the pragmatists — by a veritable river of tears shed by the former, no doubt.

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