Puppet wizardry brings a poignant story of war back to home territory
War Horse opens its UK tour at Plymouth’s refurbished Theatre Royal tonight. Sarah Pitt talks to the
play’s director, Alex Sims.
War Horse comes home to the Westcountry tonight when the award-winning play about a farm boy and his horse caught up in the horrors of the First World War opens at Plymouth's Theatre Royal.
The adaptation of a story by North Devon author Michael Morpurgo – featuring extraordinary lifesize puppets of horses – has been seen by more than four million people worldwide since its premiere at the National Theatre in 2007.
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This is the first time, though, that the West End and Broadway sensation has set off around the UK, with the Theatre Royal being its first port of call in a tour of nine theatres.
The play's opening night coincides with the reopening of the Plymouth theatre following a £7 million refurbishment, during which performances took place in its rehearsal space at TR2 half a mile away.
Michael Morpurgo is expected to be in the audience, and will meet the cast this morning to offer words of encouragement.
War Horse director Alex Sims said he and the 34-strong cast were "hugely excited" to be starting the tour in Plymouth. And it appears that the theatre-going public in the Westcountry is just as enthusiastic, with all tickets for the Theatre Royal run, until October 12, having sold out.
"We are all racing towards the same goal of opening up on Friday night which is very exciting," said Alex. "There's been a great reception from everyone here, and from Michael Morpurgo, and it is great to have that support.
"It is really exciting, too, to start off the tour here in Plymouth with full houses."
The cast have spent the past 12 days rehearsing at the theatre, where logistical challenges include manoeuvring a tank and artillery gun into place for the battle scenes, not to mention the horse puppets, created by the Handspring Puppet Company, each operated by a team three actors at head, heart and hind.
These include Joey, the horse that farm boy Albert Narracott follows to the Front, and his comrade on the battlefield, Topthorn. Joey, and the actors who operate him, visited Michael Morpurgo's home village of Iddesleigh, where the story originated, several weeks ago to mark War Horse's Westcountry opening.
While the play, originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris at the National Theatre, remains in essence the same, this is a new production with a fresh cast who, with the exception of song man Bob Fox, have never appeared in War Horse before.
Alex said the play was very much an ensemble piece, with every one of the cast vital to its success.
"There's a big cast, 34 people, and they all play various characters, soldiers, and villagers, so there are lots of changes of moustaches and hats and lots of different costumes. It is very much an ensemble piece, with no one person more important than any other."
The play had been tweaked a bit, he said, during the ten-week rehearsal period.
"A lot of the behind the scenes assistants have been with the show for a while, and they bring all their experience to it," he said. "We try to do a full rehearsal period each time, though, which is about making changes and developing it to make sure the new cast feel like they are creating characters for the first time, rather than just stepping into someone else's shoes."
The script is based on a story Michael Morpurgo wrote over 30 years ago, in his early years as a children's author. It was inspired by a chat he had with a veteran of the First World War he met in his local pub, the Duke of York, in Iddesleigh, who told the author that he had been in the First World War, "with 'osses".
His stories, and those of two other veterans in the village, inspired the author to create the tale of young farm boy Albert Narracott and his beloved horse Joey.
When Joey is requisitioned by the Army when war breaks out in August 1914, distraught Albert, played in the latest tour by Lee Armstrong, lies about his age to enlist in the Army and follow Joey to the Front.
Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man's Land, while Albert embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home. The story makes a point of seeing the war from both sides of those involved in the conflict. A German language version of the play, Gefährten, opens in Berlin next month, in advance of the centenary of the disastrous conflict which killed ten million men and a million horses.
"The play is about remembering the First World War, because as more time passes, it is important to remember that we don't want to go into a war like that again," said Alex.
War Horse at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth has sold out (check box office for returns) but there are still tickets for Only Remember, an evening of music and extracts from War Horse with Michael Morpurgo and folk singers John Tams and Barry Coope at the theatre at 7pm on Sunday.