★★★★★ | War House, National Theatre

First off, don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me, but I have to confess… I got up close and personal with Joey last night in Salford and had a great time.

Who is Joey? Joey has chestnut hair, flowing in the breeze, he’s strong, muscular, has great legs – all 4 of them… Joey is War Horse.

Don’t know about you, but I’d seen the images of the stage play, I’d even sat through the snoozefest that was the film, but nothing, and I mean nothing prepared me for the stage play.

The story is so well known, I don’t feel the need to go over it here but it’s simply boy meets horse, boy trains horse to pull a plough, WW1 begins and the horror starts.

This current touring production is at The Lowry until 20th September so you have time to book your weekend away in sunny Manchester before it travels to Stoke and then off to South Africa.

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I think the main thing that makes this production so darn wonderful is the animals – and by animals I mean Handspring Puppet Company and their puppets and puppeteers. These are some amazing creations – so articulated, so well observed, not just in terms of the look, but in the way they are manipulated and worked. Their walk, the noises, even down to their breathing… these are nuanced performances… you eventually forget about the people working them and buy into them as “real”. Watch out for the amazing flying birds, and the goose!

That isn’t to detract from the human cast, with Lee Armstrong giving one hell of a performance as Albert Naracott who trains Joey, and then follows him to war. Martin Wenner makes up the other half of this main human duo, playing Albert’s German counterpart, Friedrich. I love how the story weaves together both Albert and Friedrich, alongside the equine Joey and Topthorn.

This story seems to flow better than the film for some reason, the horror of battle shown better in the drawings displayed constantly on a torn paper screen, the minimalist staging ripe for touring but leaves so much to your imagination, the dirt and grime, the gas attacks, the effect on the people in occupied France…

We were lucky enough to get to do a quick Q&A with Martin Wenner, Lee Armstrong and the horses/puppeteers after the play, and I managed to grab some half-decent images to give you some scale of these magnificent creations. (see above)

If you can, get tickets, sell your gran if need be but go see it live – it’s a whole new world! I’ve been to the theatre quite a lot, but have never, ever seen such a reception as this cast and crew received for this production. Standing ovation? Tick!