It seems every generation has its horse story. My Friend Flicka, The Black Stallion, Black Beauty. And now there is War Horse, currently playing at the QE Theatre in Vancouver.
Each contain the same elements: a wild beast that must be tamed, playful bonding, separation and tears, some high stakes death and drama, then a reunion. Do they connect with young people because they are a parable about approaching adulthood? Perhaps.
War Horse is based on the1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo about a boy named Albert and his show horse Joey. Adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Tony Award winning Handspring Puppet Company, it has become renowned for its elaborate and highly effective horse puppets which are stunning.
Perhaps it is a victim of too much hype – the play has won numerous awards in England and on Broadway and it was adapted (sans puppets) in a 2011 Steven Spielberg movie – but this touring production, currently on stage at the QE Theatre, felt mostly loud and mostly handsome, but not very engaging.
The production values are great. The mostly stark set by Rae Smith features a slash of a torn page hovering in mid-air upon which animation and dates are rendered in simple charcoal-like sketches. The creative lighting by Paule Constable allows actors to appear out of nowhere and depicts the disorientating effects of bomb blasts in war and, as mentioned, the puppets are stunning.
Michael Wyatt Cox plays the protagonist Albert Narracott and as the story covers the years leading up to the World War I he not only ages, but also goes from simple farm life to experiencing first hand the horrors of war. Unfortunately there was little change in Cox’s performance and, like most of the cast, he shouts most of his lines robbing them of their emotional complexity.
The most layered performance was from Maria Elena Ramirez as the hard working mother Rose, plus some complex and involving work by Andrew May as the conflicted German Captain Muller.
Often though the show was simply loud with explosions of war and mush-mouth shouting, all dotted with plaintiff singing from a woman who kept stepping out of the darkness throughout the show. The thick accents were also mushy, making it difficult to understand many scenes.
There are a number of powerful puppet scenes such as when Joey and Topthorn, another hunter horse, battle to see who the alpha is, or when Joey takes on a tank. The skill of the puppeteers is remarkable and there is an adrenaline rush watching them in action, and wonder and delight when they are docile.
In the end though the story is simplistic, emotionally manipulative and a conventional ending, but should we have expected more? It is, after all, a children’s story.
In typical Vancouver fashion the audience at the QE last night leapt to their feet, but I had to agree with my companion who remarked about how much she had enjoyed our dinner.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. Adapted by Nick Stafford. Directed by Marianne Elliott. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through September 29, 2013. Visit http://vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.