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War Horse (Tour - Salford)

''War Horse'' is impressive in its staging at the Lowry but over-long, says Alan Hulme

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The phenomenon that is War Horse has galloped into this iconic Manchester Ship Canal-side venue, scattering all previous box office records before it. The situation on the opening night of a nine-week run is that there are a handful of tickets still available, particularly into December, but with 105,000 already snapped up, it's a record in the theatre's 13-year history.

And the stats don't stop there – so great is the clamour to experience this National Theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel, that the production returns to The Lowry in the summer, for a further nine weeks.

So, is the show, as now on view at The Lowry, worthy of all the fuss? Are the horses as astonishing as they are reputed to be? Is it, as so many claim, one of the greatest, most moving, experiences you are ever likely to have in a theatre? The answer is yes, yes, and not quite.

It's 1914 and 16-year-old Albert's beloved horse Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Joining up to fight for his country, Albert crosses the channel to discover Joey's fate.

It's an engrossing tale, with an atmospheric prologue set in a rural Devon long since gone, that once again rehearses the grim slaughter of the First World War, with 10 million men slain and, not quite so well known until now, probably 10 million horses as well.

As far as stage shows about WW1 are concerned, Oh! What A Lovely War of course upped the ante a long time ago and facts-wise there is little here that other plays and films haven't already covered in exhaustive detail, except the concentration on the plight of the horses, and that certainly makes for a new dimension.

But what makes War Horse such a phenomenon is, unquestionably, the staging. Believe everything you've heard about the horses – the work of the Handspring Puppet Company, made of skeletal bamboo frames and manipulated by three puppeteers each, they are a constant source of wonderment.

Then there's an epic grandeur to the whole piece. Playwright Nick Stafford and co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have fashioned a classic of theatre craft that tells its story with almost filmic impact, using animated projections and sound and light fury, filling The Lowry's vast stage to thrilling effect. Some of the greatest theatrical expertise on the planet is at work here.

But the spectacle manages not to overwhelm the characters. The precisely deployed company of 34 bring warmth and immediacy to the human action, led by Lee Armstrong's passionate and courageous Albert. There's stirring music and scenic spectacle, but at its heart is a story of human beings, and horses, facing almost unimaginable horrors.

It maybe gets a little over-long and the finale needs considerable suspension of disbelief, but a rousing standing ovation on the first night showed that for most that won't be a problem.

With War Horse at The Lowry, Dick Whittington and Pudsey the dog at the Opera House, and West Side Story at the Palace, Manchester's 2,000-seaters are unarguably offering an unprecedented and unusual range of choices this Christmas.

War Horse continues at the Lowry until 18 January 2014.

- Alan Hulme