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Review: War Horse 10th anniversary tour at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

PUBLISHED: 10:15 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:44 04 October 2017

War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

National Theatre’s production remains a remarkable piece of theatre

Ticket details

There are still some tickets remaining for the current run of War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

The show runs until October 14.

However, it returns in 2019 for another string of shows, with tickets for those performances going on general sale on Tuesday, October 17.

That run will begin on February 27 and continue until March 16.

For details visit the Marlowe Theatre’s website at www.marlowetheatre.com or call the box office on 01227 787787.

To say anything negative about the National Theatre’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is akin to revealing a love of kicking kittens around your front room. In short, it’s not the done thing.

After all, it has become something of a national treasure - a pioneering production for which its very stage craft has transended the frequently narrow confines of the theatrical arena and into the mainstream.

Think War Horse, and you don’t start pondering about the magnificent creatures in Steven Spielberg’s movie version, but, instead, the mesmorising life-size puppetry deployed to re-create the animals on stage.

It is the stage version which reinvigorated the book and inspired the movie. Even the author himself acknowledges that without the vision of the National Theatre’s production, War Horse may well have spent its life plodding about in a backwater literary paddock.

War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg. War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

And, all these years later, those horses remain just as breathtaking. Half close your eyes and the carefully constructed creatures are indistinguishable from the real thing. Take a peak when the audience’s attention is elsewhere and those controlling them continue to keep them as life-like as possible - gently moving to give the impression of the mighty beasts’ chests rising and falling when breathing, and that inquisitive look at the reaction of sounds.

There is no denying, War Horse is a triumphant stage production worthy of its plaudits.

Charting a young boy’s path from a humble Devon farm and the bond he develops with a horse bought in an act of drunken bravado by his father, to the departure of both he and the horse to the bloody fields of the Somme during the First World War, it has become a story well known to millions.

While the horses steal the limelight, some of the staging is at times utterly spellbinding.

War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg. War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

But, of course, for many of us, getting into London to watch the show can be an expensive business.

For that reason, we should all thank our lucky stars the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury has developed a relationship with the National Theatre which sees it as the preferred venue for this very special anniversary tour.

Since opening on September 15, it has played to packed houses every night - and will continue to do so until October 14. Best of all, it’s even galloping back next year for another string of performances between February 27 and March 16.

We cannot, it seem, get enough of this landmark production.

War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg. War Horse at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Picture: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

But the question remains - look past the horse puppetry, does War Horse continue to enthral?

If you were to be particularly hard on it, you could argue the first 40 minutes is a little too ‘look at these amazing horse puppets’ for its own good, as it layers on the key story components which will come into play in the remainder of the show. With that initial awe-factor perhaps now a little worn out due to the puppets’ widespread mainstream exposure, you could be forgiven for being, gulp, just a little underwhelmed by the pace of events and storytelling at the beginning. A victim, perhaps, of its own success and adoration.

Yet just when you’re pondering if War Horse is something of a one trick puppet pony, it explodes into the most remarkable production.

Of course, that slow build up, that gentle rural pre-war reality which borders on the sluggish, is designed to contrast with the meat of the drama - life on the frontline of the Great War. The gentle rolling fields replaced by the metal and mud of the French killing fields.

So we go from canter to gallop in the blinking of an eye. Talking of which, some of the lighting effects for those war scenes are, literally dazzling. Without giving much away, there is a scene where one character dies where the stage craft of lighting, design, sound and execution unites in a manner which delivers a remarkably powerful emotional punch. In fact, it is one of those moments which is so well done, where horror is captured by almost a moment of theatrical beauty, that it will remain long in the mind as a way in which to visualise the brutality and immediacy of death in war.

War Horse isn’t the perfect production - there is a little element of treacle to the storyline which while essential to engage emotional attachment, does lessen its impact just a touch. But it is extraordinarily impressive.

Without seeing the horses in action, it is hard to truly appreciate their quality and as the actors took a bow and the inevitable standing ovation at the play’s conclusion, it was only right the operators of those beasts got their own moment in the spotlight.

People often criticise theatre for not having the whizz-bang finesse of, say, cinema - of being unable to truly leave an audience spellbound. But War Horse achieves that through its sky high production values and a story arc which, while often a little telegraphed, has at its heart a simple story of friendship, compassion and bravery in the face of adversity.

Well done the Marlowe for getting this show and well done the National Theatre for such a remarkable piece of art.

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