RARELY has the arrival of a theatre production been so keenly anticipated as War Horse at the New Theatre Oxford.

Little introduction is needed to the National Theatre’s powerful production which famously casts a talented bunch of actors alongside puppets – expertly operated from within by a team of puppeteers.

The story of Joey the horse and his journey from the hills of Devon to the carnage of the Western Front, has been bombarded with plaudits. And rightly so.

This is, quite simply a must-see. Even the most reluctant theatre-goer will be bowled over by a story which avoids the temptation to go for the jugular and instead wins us over with the simple power of grace and beauty.

While the lead is Albert Narracott (a brilliantly convincing Thomas Dennis), the real stars are Joey and fellow war horse Topthorne. Or rather, it is their team of puppeteers, for they succeed in forcing the audience to forget we are looking at puppets at all, and see only a pair of majestic horses. The movements are studied and finely observed. For the duration of the play they are horses.

The rest of the cast are equally convincing, as either hard-up, heavy drinking West Country farmers and their families or as scared soldiers facing their destiny across the barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the original novel, described it not as a play about war, but of peace. And it is easy to see what he means. The carnage is stylised but is no less horrifying; perhaps more so given the simple, stark beauty of the stagecraft. And it is impossible not to come away with a soul drenched in the horror of it all.

This tale of men and animals on the front line could, in less accomplished hands, slip into mawkishness and sentimentality. There’s no time for any of that here.

Likewise jingoism. We do not root for the British against the Germans, but are reminded that both sides are human and just as terrified as the other.

This is a timely play, not just given the centenary commemorations of the Great War, but because we once again need reminding, more than, ever that it must never happen again.


* War Horse continues at the New Theatre Oxford until January 6. Tickets from atgtickets.com