By Abbie Rands
Arriving at the Millenium Centre, there could be no doubt of the buzz surrounding this play. The excitement was tangible and the moment the first note sounded, I was swept away.
The use of song to open the show was genius, as was the use of music and sound throughout. Far from an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway-esque performance, the music was subtle, often heartbreaking and always beautiful. The solo singer and accordion player was outstanding, from stirring opening to final scene occasionally accompanied by rousing, stand-out chorus moments.
The use of light and sound to create atmosphere around the minimalist set was breathtakingly skillful. The scenes washed in golden light were reminiscent of my own rural childhood and hugely nostalgic, while the soft lilac twilight was appropriately still and sleepy. During the scenes in which Joey is taught to plow, the music and lighting worked to produce a stunning montage-like quality, as effective as the technically-jarring end of Act 1 and cavalry charges.
Over all this hung a screen, like a rift over the lives on stage, broadcasting dates and locations foreshadowing the coming events. It added to the scenery and background of the scene effectively and with subtlety; the moment where blood transformed into poppies was particularly moving.
The characters themselves and their interactions with one another were simply wonderful. The central relationship between Albert and Joey is intricate and pure, from the beginning to the very end. The often fraught, but ultimately heartwarming, relationship Albert has with his parents is something that many of us will recognise. Billy Naracott is a particularly interesting character; for all his bravado in the first Act, by the second he comes to symbolise the many young boys who joined the war effort, not out of a sense of patriotism, but to avoid letting down their fathers and their legacy, in spite of fear and apprehension for what they were about to face.
The use of split scenes during the second act is particularly poignant, in which a letter is being written in a trench at one end of the stage and read out by its recipients at home at the other. For me, this demonstrated the lack of knowledge that those back home had of the true nature of the war and the experiences of their loved ones.
Language barriers are addressed throughout the play to great effect. Though all the actors spoke English, the difficulties that arise as a result of cross-cultural communication is cleverly portrayed.
Finally, the horses. Witnessing mechanical models expressing trust, pain, anger and joy was truly incredible – there was never a moment when I did not feel that I was watching real animals on stage.
War Horse is an unparallelled theatre experience, by the end of which the entire audience were standing, sobbing and ecstatic. Relentless in its depiction of war, death, humanity and hope, it never shies from the harsh realities of war, but creates an ultimately tender, heartwarming story that everyone can root for.