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War Horse (Tour - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton)

War Horse, now touring to Southampton, is painfully hard hitting and exquisitely pleasurable; a pure-bred performance that will be remembered long after the curtain comes down.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

War Horse was originally based on Children's Laureate, Michael Morpurgo's classic novel, and was later transferred to the big screen by Steven Spielberg. Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott's stage production is positively theatrical genius. Such is the power and enormity of this epic masterpiece it totally captivates your senses and leaves one equally exhausted and shell shocked. It is stunningly poignant, more so because this was the war of our ancestors. Truth not fiction!

The two hours and twenty minutes are skilfully paced and we are transported through the years effortlessly. It begins with a foal's journey from the auction house to the Devonshire countryside and finally to his service in World War 1. We are introduced to sub plots and the stark realisation of the social, economic and political context this play is set in. The simplistic set and provocative lighting invoke both a Devon field or the Somme trenches and the astonishingly tangible special effects are cleverly interspersed throughout.

It is a simple tale of a 16 year old Devonshire lad named Albert Narracoitt, played with intense purity by Lee Armstrong, and his relentless effort to find his cherished horse Joey, who has been conscripted into the war effort and shipped to France. He sympathetically portrays the intense and immense depth of human endeavour that touches the soul, and leaves one feeling despairing of the sheer futility of war and its shattering consequences.

All cast members are similarly notable in their respective roles, but the performance from Bob Fox is truly inspiring as the ‘Song ‘Man'. His haunting accordion playing inherently links the various stages of the plot.

It is viewed from the perspective of the horses, which are breath-taking, life size puppets created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. Although skeletal in appearance, they are miraculously alive thanks to the hugely talented, rotating teams of puppeteers and Toby Sedgewick's remarkable choreography. The attention to detail is exceptional. The magnificent, multifaceted horses flick a tail, twitch an ear and kick out so realistically that it is hard to believe they are mechanical puppets. Their majesty truly steals centre stage.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1 it is staggering to realise that in addition to the 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded who laid down their lives for peace, unknown millions of horses also died, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

This play is both painfully hard hitting and exquisitely pleasurable; a pure-bred performance that will be remembered long after the curtain comes down.

- Veronica Crowley