Speaking at the production’s West End opening night he said: “I’ve never left the theatre after a performance without being profoundly moved by what they’ve done.”
Morpurgo, who has seen the stage adaptation sell out two seasons at the National Theatre before moving to the New London theatre, admitted, when talking to Official London Theatre, that he felt dubious when he was originally approached about the plans for the show: “When I first heard that this was going to be a puppet-centred play of my book, I was not thrilled. I thought to myself ‘Hang on, a pantomime horse at the centre of a story about the First World War, where are we going here?’ But that comment and that thought that I had was because I didn’t know the people involved; when I saw a video of work that [puppet company Handspring] had done previously, it brought me to tears.
“It’s a revolutionary play, this. What it’s done is to show that the puppets don’t need to be auxiliary characters. You don’t need to just have them as quite an entertaining sideline. Neither do you have to have them simply looking pretty and gorgeous and telling a nice story. They can be used intelligently, sensitively, to tell a great story, to tell a story about the human condition. It’s an extraordinarily complex world which I’ve been privileged to be at the edge of and I don’t fully understand it or claim to understand it. All I know is it works, because people come out of this theatre either silent and deep in thought – thoughts that are going to last for a very long time – or in tears.”
Morpurgo was not the only creative force paying tribute to the puppetry that helped win War Horse two Laurence Olivier Awards when it was first staged at the National Theatre in 2007. Co-director Tom Morris was also quick to praise Handspring, a company he had been hoping to work with but could not find the right project until his mother suggested he read War Horse.
Both Morris and co-director Marianne Elliott were ecstatic that the piece had found a West End home, but felt that the National Theatre must take credit for its development over a number of years. Elliott told Official London Theatre that “it would never ever have happened anywhere else; nobody would have taken the risk, nobody would have spent the money”.
Based on Morpurgo’s children’s novel, War Horse tells the story of Joey, a horse reared by young Albert, who is sold to the cavalry at the beginning of World War I. Unable to forget about his equine friend, the underage Albert lies his way into the army to find Joey, whose adventures see him working for both sides before finding himself stranded in no man’s land.
Though it is based on a children’s story, the show’s producers suggest that it is unsuitable for theatregoers under the age of 12, though, as Morris pointed out: “We don’t think of it as a children’s show, we just think of it as a show that children can, in some ways, show their parents how to watch, because children respond very instinctively to incomplete theatre. If you have a man pushing a goose along the floor, a child immediately knows that it’s just a goose, and actually, very quickly adults do too. Children are experts in that, so it’s lovely having a mixed age range watching it because you can see the interplay between the generations as the children help the adults to read the language of it. But then the story is incredibly dark; it doesn’t pull any punches about the First World War. When it gets into those dark areas of the story the adults are looking after the children and you end up with different age ranges in the audience collaborating to understand the story. From the theatremaker’s point of view, that’s the absolute ideal thing.”