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Review: War Horse a theatrical triumph in puppetry, acting (Includes first-hand account)

Running until June 30, War Horse is a must-see for theatregoers. It’s brave, beautiful and excellently staged, thanks to the wondrous puppetry turning the main character of the horse Joey into a living whinnying friend you can’t help but adore.

War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel about a young British boy Albert Narracott who tries to find his beloved horse, Joey, in the battlefields of Europe during World War I. What begins as a simple tale of boy-loves-horse turns into a dramatic search-and-rescue mission the audience is compelled to follow; you continue to root for Albert to find his horse even though he faces incredible danger battling German soldiers.

The show’s characters are well-developed, especially Albert, played by Alex Furber. The emotion of longing and melancholy eking into Furber’s voice when he delivers his dialogue rounds out a character whose passion overcomes him.

Many moving performances also reel in the audience, such as Tamara Bernier-Evans as Albert’s hand-wringing mother and Richard McMillian as his devious but well-meaning uncle. Only the character of German captain Friedrich, played by Patrick Galligan, felt a bit over-acted and unrealistic.

A scene from the Toronto production of War Horse

A scene from the Toronto production of War Horse
Photo by Brinkhoff / Mögenburg


The true stars of War Horse, though, are the horses themselves. Constructed to resemble a real stallion, Joey is operated by three actors who manipulate the wooden creation so it truly gallops and rears its hind legs as if were a real horse. You begin to forget there are humans inside Joey. The magic of this puppetry is truly an experience to behold.

The skilled puppetry extends also to other horses, a duck, birds, and even a massive tank that overtakes the Princess of Wales stage in one stunning scene. Kudos to the production team and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company for making War Horse feel like an emotionally wrenching flashback to World War I, complete with projected scenes of animated explosions and troops marching.

A scene from the Toronto production of War Horse

A scene from the Toronto production of War Horse
Photo by Brinkhoff / Mögenburg


Somewhat jarring are the musical interludes, mainly consisting of a woman strolling on stage to sing a segment of what’s happening next, but it’s not incredibly evocative. I heard the British production featuring a man who plays violin and accordion did a better job at bringing the right amount of musicality to the show.

Still, I’m glad the music didn’t take away from the great pacing of the story, something that can’t be said about other musicals where songs drag the plot to an uncomfortable slowness.

I haven’t seen a theatre show as enthralling and excellently staged as War Horse in a long time, and I can’t recall when I’ve been that ferklempt by the show’s end. It should’ve been called War Hoarse because my throat was pretty sore after the third curtain call, when I gladly voiced my appreciation to the cast and crew.

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