This month, Sunderland Empire have welcomed back the National Theatre’s acclaimed production – War Horse – for a 3-week trot of performances as part of its 10th anniversary UK tour.  War Horse is live at Sunderland Empire until Saturday 23 February 2019 and tickets are still available.

We went along to the press night to find out for ourselves what War Horse was all about. 

War Horse at Sunderland Empire 2019

Set at the outbreak of World War One, War Horse takes you on a journey from rural Devon to the nightmarish battlefields of France but at its heart, the adaptation is a story of love, loyalty and friendship between a boy and his horse. You will go through all the emotions (you really must not forget to take your tissue) but will leave with a warm fuzzy feeling and new respect for puppetry!

Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the Cavalry and shipped to France. He’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land. Albert, who remained on his parents’ Devon farm, cannot forget Joey. Though still not old enough to enlist to support the war effort, Albert sneaks off to France and embarks on a treacherous mission to find Joey the horse and bring him home.

Topthorn and Joey charge into battle. War Horse at Sunderland Empire 2019

Based on the best-selling book of the same name, War Horse is one of much-loved British author, Michael Morpurgo’s most cherished stories. Fans of the book will not be disappointed; however, you do not need to have read War Horse to appreciate this truly inventive adaptation.

Prepare to be drawn in to a spectacular performance. War Horse is like nothing else I have seen. Feast your eyes on magnificent, life-size horses created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. It will be seconds before you forget they are not real and believe they are living, breathing, ear-twitching, tail-swishing horses. You’ll struggle to separate puppeteers from the noble mount they are controlling.

Joey meets Topthorn, War Horse at Sunderland Empire 2019

This is an incredibly imaginative and somewhat mind-blowing production. Paired back staging means that the magic of these phenomenal puppets becomes all absorbing whilst you are transported to a remote Devon farm or the depths of hell in the French trenches with simple use of props and the clever streak of cloud-like screen which is torn across the backdrop. The innovative use of rough sketches, diary entries and animation projected onto this screen adds depth to the staging and really helps you place the story.

Not wishing to drop a spoiler, you’ll be amazed how attached you become to a puppet!

The accompanying music and interspersed acapella vocals from a lone folk singer is haunting. The ensemble singing is rousing and moving in equal measure. The poignancy of the narrative about war cuts through the whole performance as the futility of destruction, pain and loss is shared across characters from France, Germany and Britain alike.

Joey and the Farmyard Goose - War Horse Sunderland Empire 2019

War Horse deserves the standing ovation that it received from the packed theatre. Although this is undeniably an emotional gallop through World War One, War Horse is not unrelenting and offers humour and relief with light-hearted moments, in particular from the unexpected star of the show – the farmyard goose! Ominous, masterful and deeply moving, War Horse is a must-see theatre production.

Beware of the erratic, ear-splitting gun fire which is guaranteed to make you jump out of your seat even if you think you’re prepared! The accents are perhaps a little dubious at points but each of the 34-strong cast gave a heartfelt and powerful performance.

Is there any wonder that War Horse has won 25 awards including the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway?

Free press tickets were received for this review. All opinions our own.

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