After its critical and popular successes with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy, the National Theatre has adapted another children’s novel for its epic family Christmas show this year. Nick Stafford’s world premiere stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book War Horse opened last night (17 October 2007, previews from 9 October) at the NT Olivier, where it runs in rep into the new year (See Also Today’s WOS TV).

In War Horse, young Albert's beloved horse Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France during the First World War. He's soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man's land. However, Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, the boy embarks on a treacherous mission to find the horse and bring him home.

On stage, horses, children and other selected characters are brought to life by life-sized puppets created by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for South African puppet company Handspring. Suitable for over 12s, the production is co-directed by NT associates Marianne Elliott and Tom Smith and designed by Rae Smith, with lighting by Paule Constable, movement by Toby Sedgwick and music by Adrian Sutton. The 26-strong, multi-tasking company features Luke Treadaway (as Albert), Angus Wright, Jamie Ballard, Alan Williams, Toby Sedgwick, Thusitha Jayasundera and Tim van Eyken.

First night critics, already fans of the NT’s last two Christmas offerings, declared that War Horse had “dramatically raised the stakes” even further. While completely and unanimously beguiled by Handspring’s “truly magnificent” and “uncannily beautiful” equine creations, they also emphasised that this is “much more than a puppet show” thanks to the “outstanding” human cast and the confluence of “thrilling” direction, design, music and lighting. In short, concluded one critic, this is “one of the most powerfully moving and imaginative productions of the year”.

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) - “The ongoing argument about adaptation as theatre fodder has been rejuvenated with this thrilling version of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel War Horse. The story of Joey, a country horse who is sold into the cavalry at the outbreak of the First World War, is transformed into a parable of beast’s nobility and man’s futility on a level of artistic experience way beyond the novelist’s prose. As a soul-stirring treat, not untinged with bitterness, for all the family this Christmas, or as an example of how theatre can be created from disparate components – puppetry, lighting, movement and sound – War Horse will not be surpassed by any show this year … The horses are created by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for the Handspring Puppet Company. The outer skeleton, a sort of poetic equine corsetry, is inhabited by two actors, fully visible within the structure, manipulating the huge head and draped in the strips of mane and horse hair. Their movement is muscular and momentous. The element of anthropomorphic tweeness – unavoidable in Morpurgo’s book – is entirely expunged. Nor are the actors necessarily diminished. They just represent a lower level of dignity as the horse becomes a transfigured species … This production raises the bar on horse tales on stage.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The National has dramatically raised the stakes when it comes to shows for the over-12s. After His Dark Materials and Coram Boy, they bring us Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel about the bond between boy and horse. If the story steers perilously close to sentimentality, there is no denying the visual bravura of the puppet-driven production by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris … Narrative failings are overcome by the brilliant work of the Handspring Puppet Company, who give Joey, his companion Topthorn, and a bevy of steeds an articulated life … Even Equus, in which horses were represented by skeletally masked actors, pales in comparison with the dazzling puppet design of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler who ultimately make you forget you are watching fabricated quadrupeds. Elliott and Morris recreate the kaleidoscopic horror of war through bold imagery, including the remorseless advance of a manually-operated tank, and through the line-drawings of Rae Smith projected on to a suspended screen. Admittedly the performers are somewhat eclipsed by the action, but Luke Treadaway as the tenacious Albert and Angus Wright as the sympathetic captain make their mark. The joy of the evening, however, lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Frankly this looked an impossible book to stage … How on earth do you put a life-size horse on stage, and make it the most important character in the show? … Puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns. Not here however. Joey and the other horses in the show are truly magnificent creations by the Handspring Puppet Company which don't aim for picturesque realism but with their wooden framework, translucent fabric skins, and extraordinary mobility somehow capture the very essence of everything equine. This is much more than a puppet show, however. Nick Stafford's powerful adaptation of Morpurgo's novel, which wisely ditches Joey's narrative and tells the story through dialogue among the human characters, brilliantly captures not only the mysterious and intense relationship that can exist between humans and animals, but also the dreadful waste and terror of the Great War. Like the poems of Wilfred Owen, this often virtuosic production, superbly designed by Rae Smith, brilliantly lit by Paule Constable and using all the technical resources of the Olivier stage, captures ‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’ … The human cast is outstanding too with especially moving performances from Luke Treadaway as the young and devoted Albert and Angus Wright as a good, horse-loving German … War Horse is much more than a show for kids. It is one of the most powerfully moving and imaginative productions of the year, whatever age you happen to be.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “How delightful to see a single horse act more than 20 performers off the stage! It is particularly pleasurable when Joey, the horse in question, happens to be a puppet, with a soldier riding him … I could hardly believe how lifelike the thoroughbred and his handsome, best horse-friend, Topthorn, appear … I was not, however, so sure about the treatment of the war. At times the spectacular production by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, well acted by a huge cast, seemed more concerned with the arty cleverness of its concepts than conveying a sense of war's gruesomeness … This, though, is a fine, lyrical, emotionally charged piece of theatrical work that evokes a vanished, hierarchic England at war. It will achieve a rapt hold on audiences, perhaps because the British are more comfortable lavishing emotion on animals than on fellow human beings … The production achieves an epic scope and scale, never more so than in the thrilling climactic scene when a Sherman tank that heralds the cavalry's demise trundles ominously on stage … War Horse at its best strikes joyful notes.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “For their Christmas family shows, some theatres take a vacation from high artistic standards and indulge in a little cheerful end-of-term laxity. At the National, if anything, there's an intensification of creative daring in these seasonal pieces … The National's proud tradition continues now with this extraordinarily fresh and moving production of War Horse … Staged with thrilling flair by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris in the epic space of the Olivier, the show establishes its singular identity through the use of uncannily beautiful equine puppets created by the South African company, Handspring … Imparting a superlative sense of emotional depth, the stage version refuses to anthropomorphise the animals … Underscored by folk songs and dark-hued pastoral music and with atmospheric animated drawings of war flashed on to a gash of paper that spans the stage, the show contains disturbing sights. This must be the first Christmas show ever mounted where a carrion crow is seen nibbling a dying horse. But the piece is also profoundly cathartic in its moving demonstration that our relationship with animals can be one of the richest of humanising experiences.”

    - by Terri Paddock