YOU don't see how you're going to get past the puppeteers. They're right in front of us, guiding young Joey (a life-size horse puppet) while a handful of others run around waving fishing rods (there are 'birds' at the end of them). There's even room for a pesky puppet goose.
And yet, after 15 minutes – around about the time that Joey makes friends with a boy named Albert – they're forgotten about. The puppeteers, that is. It's an extraordinary achievement.
Based on the best-selling children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a Devonshire family whose lives are changed when Albert's father, Ted Narracott (a drunken farmer), throws away the mortgage money at a local auction, arriving home with a foal that his son promises to look after.
The boy names him Joey, and Albert's mother, Rose, requests that her son train the horse with a view to selling him off as soon as he reaches adulthood. But things don't work out the way they'd planned.
For a start, they almost lose Joey in a bet. Then World War One gets in the way. Ted sells Joey to a British lieutenant, and it's goodbye for now as Albert's best friend is shipped off to France.
Joey somehow manages to survive the first wave, and even ends up serving on the German side. If things weren't bad enough, Albert leaves home, lying about his age so he can enlist in the British cavalry and heads off in search of his horse. It may sound a tad too fanciful, but my, what a unique and compelling spectacle War Horse is.
Never mind the Spielberg film. This is first-class theatre-making; a magnificent, cinematic venture, complete with beautiful animated visuals, an outstanding score (full marks to the 'songman', Bob Fox), nightmarish battle sequences, a marvellous cast (Lee Armstrong is brilliant as Albert) and ingenious puppetry courtesy of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company.
Playwright Nick Stafford's adaptation doesn't shy away from the horrors of war, but let's face it, this is a kid's book and we're never too far from the next weepy scene involving Joey and his admirers.
Regardless, it would require a heart of stone not to be moved by this most memorable of theatrical marvels. HHHHI
Running until April 26