Hoof it to the Princess of Wales Theatre.
War Horse, the National Theatre of Great Britain's justly decorated West End and Broadway hit about a boy and his horse sent off to fight in the First World War, is that rare puppet play that will enchant and move both adults and children. (Mature children, that is – there is a bit of language, but a lot of violence.)
After his foolish, boastful father (Brad Rudy) buys a foal at auction with the mortgage money, Albert (Alex Furber) is tasked with raising him into an adult.
Joey is the name the young horse responds to – and, in his youthful incarnation, he totters around charmingly on stiff legs like Bambi skittering across the ice.
Then, in War Horse's first big coup de theatre, Joey goes from foal to full-grown hunter in a single, dramatically lit leap. The thrill of this moment alone is worth ponying up for a ticket.
But that's only the beginning: Soon enough, the Great War has broken out, and Joey has been sold to the British cavalry by Albert's unremittingly unpleasant father, a man who drinks because he's ashamed he didn't participate in the last war.
Though he's too young to legally enlist, Albert does anyway and is soon off in France searching for his horse. Instead, he ends up in trench warfare where anything higher than a human gets cut down by machine guns.
"Cavalry has no place in this war," remarks one character.
The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto was built by Ed and David Mirvish in 1993 to house Miss Saigon, a mega-musical remembered largely now for the helicopter that landed on stage.
That was a cinematic idea of realism chopping its way into theatre and sticking out like a sore thumb.
Now Mirvish productions has brought us Miss Saigon's mega-opposite, a creation that takes the ancient theatrical art of puppetry and uses it to stir the soul in a way theme-park thrills never can.
Created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, the horses are astonishingly easy to become attached to. Joey is operated by three humans, but soon enough, they disappear from sight and all you see is a live creature, trotting, charging, kicking and nosing in every way like a real animal. (On opening night, in a smell-o-theatre twist, you could even smell the horse manure thanks to a visit from police horses to line the red carpet.)
That's the magic of theatre – and something that film simply cannot replicate, as evidenced by Steven Spielberg's recent attempt to turn War Horse into a movie.
As Joey's human co-star, Furber is fantastic, neatly navigating his journey from boy to man through the carnage of the battlefield; he also manages to keep the odd horse-human romance that drives the plot on the innocent side and out of creepy Equus territory.
There are some fine performances as well by Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree as British cavalry officers, and Patrick Kwok-Choon as a fellow infantry soldier.
Indeed, in the first half, War Horse works like a charm with the exception of a few accents neither here nor there.
In the second half, however, the storyline gets murkier and the accents get muddier as Joey ends up lost over enemy lines and becomes enmeshed in the lives of a little French girl named Emilie (Addison Holley) and a German cavalry officer named Friedrich (Patrick Galligan).
Shaw Festival veteran Galligan does not bring a needed focus to these scenes – and his accent shifts back and forth from German to his natural, slightly affected Galliganese, making the conventions of the staging somewhat confusing.
What the various languages in War Horse do is show us humans unable to communicate with other humans through words, just as humans and horses cannot speak.
War Horse doesn't so much anthropomorphize horses, as it zoomorphizes humans – showing us to be animals. And providing a lesson about the First World War that is still today not entirely learned nearly a century later – war is not fit for man nor beast.
- Written by Nick Stafford
- Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo
- Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
- Starring “Joey”, Alex Furber and Patrick Galligan
- A National Theatre of Great Britain Production
- At the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto