DURING the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War, the National Theatre’s moving drama War Horse with its astonishing life-size horse puppets has begun its run at the Brighton Centre.

The award-winning production, which celebrate its 10th birthday this year and has been seen by more than seven million people worldwide, began its tour of the UK last September and will stay at the Brighton Centre until February 10.

Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s story of courage, loyalty and friendship, about a young boy called Albert and his horse Joey, set against the backdrop of the First World War is the most successful play in the National Theatre’s history. As the tour kicked off last September, Michael Morpurgo said, “After a few months rest, out at pasture, Joey the War Horse and his great team from the National Theatre will be touring the UK again from 2017 through to 2018 and the centenary of the end of the First World War, taking their show all over the country, to towns and cities, many of them places War Horse has not been seen before.  

“I am so pleased this is happening, that so many more people will have the chance to enjoy this unique theatrical event. Steady, boy, steady, Joey. Trot on!”

The touring production features a new cast, which includes a number of Sussex actors, including Jo Castleton, who plays Albert’s mother Rose Narracott and is from Brighton and Shoreham-by-Sea, and 24-year-old Jasper William Cartwright, who plays Billy and who grew up in Horsham, as well as puppeteer Tom Stacy, who is from Crawley.

The lead role of Albert is played by Thomas Dennis, who appeared in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

“I find it very moving to play Albert, especially as we are coming up to the centenary of the end of the First World War,” he says. “I’ve carried out a lot of research about the war to learn about Albert’s journey – I have visited northern France and the cemetery of the real soldiers of his regiment. And when I look out at the thousands of people in the audience from the stage, I imagine myself in that place and I think to myself that more people than that died going over the top in one battle. That gives me goosebumps.”

It’s the first professional production for Jasper, who lives in Telscombe Cliffs and attended The Forest School for Boys in Horsham and Central Sussex College in Haywards Heath. “It’s an honour to be performing in War Horse,” he says. “It’s really exciting. My character Billy is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and it’s a challenge to bring that to life on the stage. In my research on PTSD, I’ve watched how people behave and been very moved by it.

“Billy comes across as a spoilt brat so it’s been necessary to bring an element of likeability to the character too.”

War Horse is famous for featuring ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing, galloping horses to live on stage.

Handspring designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones fashioned the life-size handmade Joey puppets from hoops of cane, which is light, flexible, durable and mouldable, with see-through nylon mesh for skin, and the mane and tail made from Tyvek, the same material used to make the Australian dollar and is waterproof and doesn’t tear. String tendons running through the legs automatically pull the leg hoop up to create a convincing horse action.

With lighting from behind, the frame can look skeletal and fragile, while lighting from above gives it a more solid look.

Three puppeteers operate the puppet, two inside the horse’s body in the ‘heart’ and ‘hind’ positions using bicycle cables with their hands to move body parts, such as the head, the ears and the tail.

“Ears are en emotional indicator of the horse,” the designers explained in a TED talk. “ When they point right back, the horse is fearful or angry, or when more relaxed, the head comes down and the ears listen. Horses’ hearing almost more important than eyesight.”

They also explained how the horse “breathes”. “The breathing of the horse was a big challenge. There’s a channel in the chest and the chest moves up and down with that. The puppeteer breathes with his knees.

“And if I were to touch the skin, the puppeteer can shake the body from inside and make the skin shiver.”

On stage, the actors ride the horse puppets. The production’s resident puppetry director Matthew Forbes says, “Joey is quite sturdy as inside he has made from aluminium.

“He has to be robust as there are two puppeteers standing inside, mimicking the horse’s movements.”

Matthew, who trained as an actor and and appeared in original National Theatre production of War Horse, explained that the puppeteers also create the horse’s sounds, such as neighing, and in operation Joey moves, breathes and twitches his ears uncannily like a real horse.

“The puppeteers spent two weeks learning how to behave like a horse, riding them and observing them, and we also worked with the King’s Troop for a few weeks,” he says.

As an actor and director with a strong focus on puppetry, object manipulation and physical theatre, Matthew believes that the use of puppetry in War Horse has changed the genre.

“There’s no other show like this,” he says. “Before War Horse, puppets were seen as an end-of-the-pier kind of entertainment – but this is completely different. It appeals to everybody.”

War Horse is at the Brighton Centre, Kings Road, Brighton, until Saturday February 10. Tickets £20-£52.50. Phone 0844 847 1515 or visit brightoncentre.co.uk.

Above: Jasper William Cartwright as Billy, with puppeteers Tom Quinn, Domonic Ramsden and Nicky Cross operating Joey

Main picture, top: Thomas Dennis as Albert, with puppeteers Tom Stacy, Lucas Button and Lewis Howard 

Below: Jo Castleton as Rose with Gwilym Lloyd, who plays Ted

Above: Ben Ingles as Lt. Nicholls riding Joey, who is operated by Tom Quinn, Domonic Ramsden and Nicky Cross

Below: Simon Victor as Cpt. Stewart, Topthorn and Ensemble

Above: Joelle Brabban as Emilie, with Tom Quinn, Domonic Ramsden and Nicky Cross operating Joey

Below: Peter Becker as Friedrich and Jack Lord, who plays Klausen

Above: An ensemble of soldiers line up  


All pictures: Brinkhoff&M+Âgenburg