Viv Hardwick finds it’s well worth the battle to see a capital staging of a wartime drama.

THE last of the Great War combatants is no longer with us, but the power of War Horse continues to pack in audiences like a trench before the big push at The Somme.

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book by Nick Stafford, this play achieves the near-impossible of creating realistic life-sized puppet horses on stage. Handspring Puppet Company was recruited by the National Theatre to make and perform these eye-catching equestrian forms, particularly that of the title hero, Joey, who requires three puppeteers on all occasions as we watch the animal grow from foal to officer’s mount.

It’s harder finding the New London Theatre – where the award-winning War Horse transferred from the National Theatre last March – than getting off your first pair of riding boots, thanks to a postcode which sends you to the wrong end of Drury Lane.

Thankfully, our mission was worth almost every penny of the £155 we had paid for admission. The large open stage area, decorated only by a hanging backdrop of a shred of a page torn from a book, simmered with the glorious battle to come.

Morpurgo’s children’s novel takes red bay Joey from the ownership of Devon farmer’s son Albert Narracott (Robert Emms) to the battlefields of Europe, from which only 62,000 of a million horses returned.

Soon you forget the three puppeteers operating the head, heart (body area) and hind of Joey as this simply-told tale shoots to your soul with sentimentality. Like Albert, who runs away to join the Army at 16, we want to know Joey’s fate as Colonel Strauss (James Barriscale) leads a cavalry charge against German machine guns with the heartstopping slow motion slaughter that chills to the core those of us who lost family members during the conflict.

But can you care about a horse among all this carnage? Well, yes.

Patrick O’Kane appears as a German soldier who deserts his post to try to keep Joey and fellow steed Topthorn alive – with tragic results.

Morpurgo, who was evacuated to Cumberland during the Second World War, uses that Northern connection to create Geordie (a role shared by Robin Guiver and Stephen Harper), the English soldier who spots Joey trapped by barbed wire between the lines.

Puppet designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s horses look incredible fragile at first, thanks to the skeletal appearance, but soon men are leaping into the saddle with the weight borne on the shoulders of “heart” performers including Matthew Burgess, Finn Caldwell and Robin Guiver. It certainly brings a new meaning to the phrase “working like a horse”. Adrian Sutton’s music and John Tams songs retain the simplicity of Morpugo’s work to haunting effect.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Rae Smith’s animated designs on the backdrop could have been a little more ambitious. But when you need 12 people to operate just the two main horses throughout, that might be asking beyond the near-impossible.

■ War Horse has had its run extended at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London, WC2 until October 23. Tickets from £10 to £60.25. Box Office: 0844-412-4654 or visit or