Global theatre hit War Horse is coming to Birmingham as part of a national tour. Roz Laws talks to its producer and author to find out why the show has become such a phenomenon.
It is just a jumble of cane, netting and wires – albeit a carefully crafted jumble – but I swear it is alive.
As Joey nuzzles my shoulder and I stroke his forelock, he breathes. No, he really does.
At the back of my mind, Brian Conley is shouting ‘It’s a puppet!’, but I refuse to believe that this is not a real horse. Even though there are two men underneath him and one moving his head – and they’re the ones making the breathing noises – I just don’t see them.
Joey is looking right at me, his ears twitching and tail flicking, and he’s certainly a lot more than a puppet.
He is the star of War Horse, a play which has become a global phenomenon.
Now it’s coming home to the city which helped to inspire the story, much to the delight of the production’s Midland producer, Chris Harper.
War Horse is going on a 10-month, nine-venue tour of the UK and Ireland next year, which includes Birmingham Hippodrome from October 17 to November 9, 2013. Tickets go on sale in January.
The play recounts the emotional story of Joey, a horse bought by the Army for service in the First World War, and the attempts of previous owner, young farmer Albert, to find him and bring him safely home.
This remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship began life in 1982 as a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. It was turned into a play in 2007 by the National Theatre using life-size horse puppets, then it was made into a film by Steven Spielberg last year.
Morpurgo had the idea in 1976 when a boy from Birmingham visited his Farms For City Children charity in Devon, giving inner city youngsters the chance to live on a farm for a week.
The lad, who he called Billy, had been in several foster homes. He was so withdrawn and tormented by a stammer that at the age of seven he had given up speaking.
Morpurgo remembers: “His teachers told me not to ask him any questions, as he had simply stopped communicating.
“But one night I found him in the stable in his slippers, talking 19 to the dozen to a horse called Hebe. He had found his self-confidence and courage in his love for this horse. I know Hebe couldn’t understand the words, but I knew he was listening to Billy and he knew it was important to be there.
“It was the most extraordinary meeting of minds between boy and horse, and I realised I could use a horse’s voice to tell my story.
“I don’t know if the encounter had a lasting effect on Billy, but I know these things make a difference. It’s not something you forget.”
Morpurgo, looking colourful in a dusky pink suit and bright red shoes as we talk at the National Theatre after my close encounter with Joey, reflects that Billy was the impetus to get him started on War Horse but he’d been thinking about the theme of war for some time.
“I was born in 1943 so I’m a war baby,” says the author, who was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Central England in 2007 for his outstanding contribution to children’s literature.
“I grew up with the evidence of the Second World War all around me, playing in the bombsites of London.
“But it wasn’t just the wrecked buildings and rationing that reminded me of the war, it was the look in my mother’s eyes as she remembered the death of her brother, who served in the RAF and was shot down at the age of 21. Uncle Peter was a hero in our family and his photo was on the mantelpiece.
“I know about sacrifice first hand and I learned that you don’t forget grief.
“I learned more about war from the poetry, and the pity in poetry that touches you so deeply. I read First World War poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and I learned that 10 million soldiers died in a senseless war which achieved so little.
“I saw the play Oh What A Lovely War and films like All Quiet on the Western Front and they fed my imagination.
“Then in 1980 I met an old First World War soldier in my local pub in Devon, the Duke of York in Iddesleigh.
“We sat by the fire for two hours as he talked about going to war at 17 with the horses. He unburdened himself and I felt he was handing history on to me.
“The next day, I rang the Imperial War Museum and asked them how many horses were sent to the First World War battlefields from Britain. They estimate one million, and only 62,000 came back.
“They died in the same way as the men, machine-gunned, of exhaustion, on the barbed wire or drowned in mud.
“It occurred to me to write about a horse that goes to war but not looking at it from one side or the other. War Horse is about the universal suffering of war.
“It’s a difficult subject because war isn’t entertainment, yet the National Theatre has created an extraordinary show out of my book.
“It works because it has huge integrity. They don’t make it sentimental but it is emotional. It tells us something about the experience of war and it is for all ages, from about 10 upwards.”
Now in its fourth year at the New London Theatre, War Horse has broken records for the highest weekly gross for a play in the West End.
The Broadway production was the winner of six Tony Awards. It has also been performed in Canada, toured America, Melbourne and Berlin.
It has been seen by 2.3 million people around the world and is the most successful show the National Theatre has ever produced.
Celebrity fans include Michael Caine, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren – and the Queen, who saw the play in 2009 with Prince Philip in their first private theatre visit in four years.
It is no wonder they were so delighted when Joey reared up on the roof of the National as they sailed past on the Jubilee river pageant in June.
War Horse producer Chris Harper remembers: “We would never normally allow the horse to be out in the rain, but for the five minutes when the Queen came past, the rain stopped. It was magical.”
Chris, 40, was born in Stourbridge where his parents still live. His theatrical journey began at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
“I went to see Norman Wisdom in Cinderella when I was about five. I loved it and thought ‘I want to do this’. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was, but I knew I wanted to work in that environment.
“My drama teacher at The Grange School in Stourbridge, Beryl Luckins, encouraged me. At 14 I went to the Birmingham Rep on work experience, stuffing envelopes and making the tea. I went there every holiday and at 16 a job came up as a marketing assistant.
“They thought ‘He’s always here, he’s keen and enthusiastic, we’ll give it to him’. So I left school before I sat any exams.
“I spent two years there then two at the Hippodrome as a press and marketing assistant. It was the best training, covering opera, ballet, pantos and musicals.
“Since then I’ve worked with everyone from Disney and Eddie Izzard to Cameron Mackintosh on Phantom of the Opera and launched Mamma Mia, until I became director of marketing at the National.
“The thing that excites me more than anything is filling the theatre and seeing house full signs go up. But never before have I worked on a show that has artistic integrity and commercial success. That’s why War Horse is so special. It has heart and is highly theatrical, and it forces the audience to use their imagination. I saw the first Joey prototype being developed, but I could never have dreamed it would turn out like this.
“When I knew War Horse was going on tour, I said it had to go to the Birmingham Hippodrome if it’s the last thing I do! It will be the biggest thrill and so emotional for me to come full circle.”
The show has 18 puppets, including six life-size horses plus a goose and two crows. They are made by the Handspring Puppet Company.
It takes 20 people to hand-make one Joey using bespoke parts.
He is brought to life by three puppeteers who are called his head, heart and hind. They squeeze levers to move his ears and legs and make astonishingly realistic horse noises.
The puppeteers visit stables to observe the way horses move and spend two days in a workshop learning to do the noises.
As a horse has the lung capacity of three people, all the men operating him join in to make a whinny or neigh as realistic as possible.
As it is such a physically demanding role, the puppeteers can only be in the horse for 15 minutes at a time, so there are four teams who rotate throughout the show.
Puppet master Toby Olie says: “The challenge for me is to keep the horses as real as possible.
“It’s amazing how different performers can change Joey’s character. Some Joeys are much more cheeky than others.”
It’s the puppets which make War Horse the play so extraordinary and have to be seen in the ‘flesh’ to be believed. They make it a more interesting viewing experience than the Steven Spielberg film, although Michael Morpurgo claims not to have a favourite.
“You have to trust the people you hand your work on to. With both the National Theatre and Spielberg they were safe hands, full of genius.
“It’s a family joke that I never liked answering the phone on the farm, and I usually said ‘Oh I’ll answer it, it could be Spielberg’. Then one day I answered it, and it really was. Well, almost – it was his producer Kathleen Kennedy.
“The film keeps closer to the book than the play. I wish the film had spent more time in the Devon countryside, but its war scenes are the best I have ever seen.
“There are moments in both that are so powerful – when Joey is caught on the wire, it’s heart wrenching. What’s important is that the spirit of the book should be in the play and the film.
“I was there on the first night of the play and I was blown away. I saw grown men around me in tears. I cry every time I see it. It’s very beautiful but my heart bleeds for the soldiers and the horses. It’s about loss and pain, but it’s also important to have redemption at the end, to know that life goes on.”