In the lead up to the show arriving in Birmingham, we spoke to two puppeteers from the award-winning UK production of War Horse.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s iconic novel, War Horse follows the life of young Albert Narracott and his horse Joey against the backdrop of World War One in a compelling production.
The major tour started its journey back in September 2017 at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, after completing an incredibly successful eight-year run at the New Land Theatre in the West End, where it was named the most successful play in the history of National Theatre.
Due to the outbreak of war in 1914 England, beloved Joey is sent off to assist his country and Albert will stop at nothing to get him back – even if that means fighting in the war himself.
Combining intense scenes of fear and panic on the front line with tender moments between a mother and her son, alongside gripping dramatic irony, War Horse is an incredible moving theatrical experience that highlights the futility of war, the immeasurable amount of loss that swept across the nation and the sheer power of love.
Puppetry is integral to the whole production, but these aren’t the puppets you’re used to, these realistic life-sized creatures have the power to create emotional connections both on stage and right into the audience.
And it goes without saying that Joey the horse dominates the show, warming the hearts of the audience without even having to make a sound and touching the lives of every character who’s fortunate enough to cross his path. Alongside the other animals throughout the show, Joey is performed by a team of talented puppeteers, all of which have undergone intensive training. These captivating animals are brought to life using ground-breaking puppetry skills by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, expressing each intricate mannerism, from hoof to ears, and this makes all the difference to the production.
But despite looking seamless on stage, this isn’t a skill that can be taught overnight, as both puppeteers Tom Quinn and Lewis Howard recount their gruelling, but rewarding, experience before getting on the stage. Tom, who switches between playing the heads of both war horses Joey and Topthorn recalls:
“It’s a long and tiring rehearsal process, one of the longest in the business. You’ve got two full-sized, if not bigger, horses wandering around the stage with a big company of 34”, to which Lewis agrees “It was the most physically difficult work I’ve ever done – without a shadow of a doubt, because your body just changes depending on what you’re doing in the puppets. It’s quite overwhelming how much is required of you; you get to the point where you’ll be three or four days into rehearsal and you’d physically try and do something in the horse and you can’t, your body just won’t let you. It’s akin to training an athlete, which it did feel like at times.”
The Midlands is a place that both actors hold close to their hearts; Tom grew up in Redditch before studying at East 15 in London, whereas Lewis was born in Birmingham and later moved to Cornwall, but always considers Birmingham a “second home” where his grandma still lives.
When asked about the pressure of performing such a recognised piece of literature, Tom highlights the importance of treating every show with “care” as they’re “dealing with big themes of friendship, love and bonds between humans and animals”, all whilst maintaining the history of World War One.
And no two nights are the same, as the cast switch between puppets and ensemble roles throughout the week.
“Each team brings different things to Joey, you end up having three different Joeys over the week – it keeps it interesting and fresh for us.”
And after seeing the production almost 10 years ago with his mum, Lewis remembers being “blown away” by a show so unique, and naturally jumped at the chance to audition when the opportunity arose. And he’s not the only one, the show has been seen by the likes of The Queen, Prince Philip, Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley, Diana Ross and Steven Spielberg, who was so impressed he later commissioned a blockbuster film that premiered in 2012.
Surprisingly, neither actors had a history of puppetry before the show, but this doesn’t act as a barrier, rather an opportunity to develop and refine their skills, as Tom points out. “Every night I’m making acting choices in the same way that the speaking company will, I just can’t express those actions through my body, I have to show it through what I’m holding.”
This is the first time both actors have performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome, and we can’t wait to welcome them and this incredibly heart-warming production to our city.