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Review: War Horse at the Sunderland Empire until May 17

Newcastle's Lee Armstrong heads the cast as London hit War Horse is welcomed in Sunderland on its first-ever tour

Lee Armstrong (Albert) in War Horse
Lee Armstrong (Albert) in War Horse

For ages I’ve been wanting to see War Horse and now the National Theatre production has galloped into the North East on its first tour.

The show will have been eagerly awaited by many who have glimpsed the extraordinary puppetry which brings alive the life-sized horse at the heart of this First World War story.

Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s popular novel about the relationship between farm boy Albert (played by Newcastle actor Lee Armstrong) and his much-loved horse, Joey, is hugely impressive and in need of every inch of the biggest stage in the North East.

We first meet Joey as an unbroken foal and the puppeteers, dressed in earthy colours that evoke the setting of rural Devon, are not hidden in any way – yet soon seem to melt into the background.

And when we see Joey fully grown – one puppeteer working the head, two inside the frame of the body – it’s such a powerful image that we forget within minutes that this isn’t a real horse.

From its twitching ears and restless shifting to its head pulling and rearing – even full-blown galloping scenes are well done – it’s an extraordinary creation.

Helped by some rousing cast singing, the Songman – local folk singer Bob Fox – provides a musical backdrop to the action which switches from homely Devon when Albert’s cash-strapped dad sells Joey to a cavalry officer.

If that forced separation doesn’t bring a tear to the eye then just wait until they reach the battlefields of France, Albert having enlisted to track down his equine pal.


The puppets, also including magnificent black stallion Topthorn and a vicious and very funny goose, are indeed the stars of the show but this is, of course, a cracking story, as fans of Morpurgo’s novel will know.

A scene-setting backdrop conveys the horrors of the Somme with its uniformed masses but it’s the central relationship of horse and boy we care about as the tale picks up momentum – and new characters – in France.

The battle scenes are bleak and beautiful and the story serves as a reminder of the largely forgotten role played by horses in the war.

I was amazed at how emotionally involved I became with Joey, from the proud hunter’s early struggles to do the work of a farm horse to its side-by-side battlefield plight with Topthorn.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t know how the story ends but it could hardly have been done better. Quality acting, talented puppeteers and the creations of the Handspring Puppet Company ensure this show will live long in the memory.

First night audiences gave it a standing ovation and I, for one, left emotionally drained – yet in awe, for the first time in a long while, of the magic of good theatre.

Do your utmost to grab a ticket before it trots off on May 17.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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Mark Douglas
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