There are lots of things in life that don’t live up to the hype: Crunchie ice cream bars, Lost in Translation (so self-indulgent I fought the desire to gouge out my own eyes), Michael Owen, the time U2 did disco. I could go on.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see War Horse. Described as the ‘theatre event of the decade’ and ‘a landmark theatre event’, this blockbuster show has wowed audiences from America to Australia, scooped pretty much every award going and spawned a Hollywood film directed by Steven Spielberg. It is the National Theatre‘s most successful play ever.

The author Michael Morpurgo thought “they must be mad” to try to make a play from his best-selling 1982 novel – and you can see why he had reservations. War Horse tells the tale of a boy and his horse. Albert raises Joey from a foal and forms a bond with him that animal lovers will recognise instantly. But the First World War intervenes, forcing Albert to embark on a perilous journey to find his beloved Joey among the carnage of the trenches in the fields of France.

Much has been written about the Handspring Puppet Company, the pioneering group responsible for the life-size puppets that are the true stars of the show. All of the praise is warranted: in a way that I still don’t completely understand, Handspring and its team of talented puppeteers sprinkled theatrical fairy dust across the stage of The Lowry‘s Lyric theatre last night, moving me and a 1,700-strong audience in ways I never thought possible. Along with the people sitting beside me, I marvelled, I held my breath and I wept as horses whinnied, cantered and galloped before my eyes. Even when standing still, these equine creations were breathing, sighing and shivering, as real as any living horses I’ve ever seen.

War HorseOn a stage which – it later occurred to me – had little in the way of set, the horses were the focus of attention. That’s not to say the actors were mere props in a play dominated by puppets – the human performances (for want of a better phrase) were flawless, not a bad-un between them. And there were moments of levity, in particular the feisty goose who, I have it on good authority, is called Lucy. But the minimal set was a genius stroke. Like the best works of literature, it left much to the imagination and it is testament to the combined efforts of the War Horse team that I didn’t realise til the end that I was filling in the gaps. There were scenes so brilliantly executed that I found myself looking round to check I was still sitting in a Salford theatre.

I don’t want to say anymore. To divulge more details would be to rob you of an experience that is unlikely to bettered by anything else you will ever see in the theatre. Suffice to say that I spent much of the evening choking back tears, and was so breathless with emotion by the time the curtain came down that I had to reach for my inhaler.

It seems apposite that this tale of loss, reunion and redemption should be played out just a stone’s throw from the Imperial War Museum North, and so close to the anniversary of the start of the First World War. In addition to the terrible scale of human lives lost, it is sobering to think that of the one million horses shipped to France from Britain, only 62,000 were brought back. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Review by Helen Nugent

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War HorseWhat: War Horse

Where: The Lowry, Salford

When: until January 18, 2014 and returning next summer

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