Broadway Across Canada’s presentation of National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse tells a simple story. A young man and his horse. It isn’t that much more complex than that. The relationship between the boy and his horse Joey isn’t anything remarkable. The crux and pull of the stage adaptation of War Horse lies indisputably with Handspring Puppet Company, the puppeteers behind the horses on stage. They create mesmerizing creatures that are complex and beautiful, their movements so like the animals they are portraying, that you forget there are people on stage running the mechanics of it all.
The play tells of Albert (Michael Cox) and how he comes to love and care for his horse Joey. But his father Ted (Gene Gillette) armed with a drinking problem and an affinity for money and betting, sells Joey and he winds up fighting for the English in World War I. With soldiers falling all around him Joey gets traded, fighting for both sides of the war. Albert fights to get his horse back and bring him home.
Playing a large part in the play, other than the puppets is the projection design, beamed on a hanging across the stage that featured rolling landscapes and animated sketches. It was like another character on stage, creating the tension and wreckage of the war.
But the dynamic, animated puppets are brought down with a script that is contrived and full of sappy lines. Lines like: “If you lose Joey, you’ll lose everything.” Or when we meet Emilie (Ka-Ling Cheung) the first thing she says is: “keep Joey and Topthorn out of danger.” It’s eye rolling, bang your head against a wall dialogue that pushes the audience further and further away from being there with the characters. But maybe the human characters are so flat because they want the non-human characters to stand out. And you do find yourself loving the antagonistic goose and feeling real sorrow when Joey is alone and caught in the middle of no man’s land. War Horse does illustrate the ugliness of how we treat the animals who have nothing to do with the wars we wage. And maybe the production wants you to focus on that. But it wouldn’t hurt if the narrative and human characters were more dynamic. Then it would be a spell binding piece of theatre.
War Horse is presented by Broadway Across Canada and plays until September 15th. Tickets and more information is available online.