From the solitude of Private Peaceful to the epic ensemble play War Horse
Martin Freeman talks to Devon actor Finn Hanlon about his second role in a play from a Michael Morpurgo story.
It's another show, another Michael Morpurgo First World War drama for actor Finn Hanlon. But that's where the similarities end. Devon-born Finn toured county-based author Michael's Private Peaceful as a low-key, one-man play in 2009. Now he finds himself astride the phenomenon that is War Horse.
"This is the show of the decade," he says, with a mixture of pride and wonder. "It's the biggest show there is at the moment. And to get the chance to come back to Plymouth and spend some time down here and stay at home – it couldn't get any better."
Finn plays cavalry officer Captain Nicholls, who leads Joey, a Devon farm horse, into battle in the spectacular production.
For those who need more help with the plot – where have you been for the last six years? – War Horse follows farm lad Albert and his beloved Joey, a stallion "called up" in the 1914-18 conflict. The 1982 book of the same name was a relative slow-burner. By comparison Private Peaceful (2003), the story of a soldier awaiting execution for desertion, won four awards and was swiftly adapted for stage and screen.
War Horse's walk to prominence became a gallop in 2007 when the National Theatre production opened. The play transferred to the West End and won four leading awards. In New York the piece picked up six Tonys, including that for best play. More than 2.5 million people around the world have now seen War Horse in the theatre. The Steven Spielberg-directed film based on the book reached an ever wider audience in 2011 and was nominated for six Oscars.
The stage version continues to enthral audiences around the world, largely thanks to the stunning life-size puppetry by South African company Handspring, which brings Joey to life.
War Horse's run at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, from tonight, sold out months ago. The play is the first production on the main stage since the theatre's £7-million regeneration. The UK tour that follows is also heavily booked.
Meanwhile, the journey that would bring Finn and Joey together in their native Devon began for the actor with the Playgoers at Dartington Hall. He is from Staverton, near Totnes, and was in school productions at the town's King Edward VI Community College. Next came a degree in drama at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and steady work in theatre.
Finn, 29, spent a couple of years with all-male Shakespeare specialists Propeller. That company brought him back to the Theatre Royal Plymouth on two occasions, most recently for The Taming Of The Shrew and Twelfth Night earlier this year. His first performance on the city stage was as a teenager with Plymouth's Young Company.
Finn had not seen War Horse in the West End, although he thought he knew what to expect when he joined the production for the ten-month regional tour.
"But it was a complete surprise to walk into this massive rehearsal space and be confronted by two life-size horses galloping around," he says. "It was mind-blowing. The puppets are amazing. It's an incredible show, huge – a spectacle really. It captures the essence of the book, though, very cleverly. It's a beautiful contrast with Private Peaceful. Michael Morpurgo is such a fantastic storyteller."
So much so that tickets are at a premium – and Finn may not have the usual full Hanlon clan for support.
"It's really hard to get tickets," he says. "My family might have to see the show somewhere else on the tour."
War Horse runs at The Lyric, the Theatre Royal Plymouth's main stage, from tonight until October 12. Michael Morpurgo will read an abridged version in War Horse: Only Remembered in The Lyric on October 13. That show includes songs written by John Tams for the stage version and performed by him and Barry Coope.