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War Horse gallops north to the Sunderland Empire

The award-winning production of War Horse hot-hooves it to Sunderland Empire

Pitch locals from north and south of the region together in a show and what do you get? Newcastle/Sunderland football chat, that’s right, although “chat” might be putting it politely.

“We have some very good banter,” laughs Seaham Harbour-born Bob Fox who is joined by Lee Armstrong from Newcastle in the cast of War Horse, the West End hit now on its first tour and bringing the pair back to home turf for a run at Sunderland Empire.

The 30-plus cast is made up mostly of northerners, says musician Bob, who resumes the role of Songman after his stint in the National Theatre’s West End production. “They asked me to stay but I’d had enough of London,” he says. But, having signed up for this lengthy tour, he’s enjoying being part of a new cast. “They’re a fantastic group of people. A lot are from the Manchester area so the show has a very northern feel.”

As the Songman, Bob provides a musical backdrop to the action, helping set the atmosphere and drive the story forward. “I’m a kind of musical narrator, not seen by other people in the story. I’m an everyman and on and off stage all the time. I hardly ever get to sing a whole song but they’re all very earthy and based on old folk songs.”

By now pretty near everyone has heard the glowing reports of the multi-award-winning production, particularly the spectacular puppetry on display in the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s poignant First World War story about the teenage Albert Narracott - played here by Lee - who is separated from his beloved horse Joey when it’s sold to a cavalry officer heading off to war and sets out to bring him home.

While Steven Spielberg’s film did its bit to milk the emotion of the action played out against the green of rural Devon, then the mud and blood of the battlefields and trenches of the Somme, it was the stage show - with its extraordinary life-size puppets of snorting, rearing horses - that left audiences in awe. And the Queen was no doubt equally impressed when she was treated to a tribute from Joey during her Diamond Jubilee pageant.

Now at last we’ll get to see what all the fuss is about as the Empire’s large stage welcomes the creations of Handspring Puppet Company.

Bob, a well-know folk singer who has toured the world, is equally in thrall to the puppets. When he had some time off, he took the chance to sit in the audience, explaining: “You never get to see it when you’re in it. The next day I said everybody in the cast should have a chance to watch the show and appreciate how fantastic it is.

“The puppet team are amazing. They are actors who are trained to become puppeteers and for the tour I was starting with a new cast who had never done puppetry before.” Training involved closely studying the behaviour and movement of real horses and the whole cast spent time with them.

For Lee, too, it proved a real learning curve. “I’d never really been around horses before,” says the 24-year-old who was appearing in the play Brilliant Adventures at Live Theatre when he landed the lead role.

He found the puppets so authentic he had no trouble fostering Albert’s emotional connection to Joey. “I started to act like they were real horses!

London-trained Lee became an actor almost by accident when, faced at school with the choice of history, geography, physics or drama, he chanced the latter, saying: “We had a good drama department at Gosforth High School and I enjoyed it.” He’d had a War Horse role in the back of his mind ever since a friend of his, in a final year at drama school, took part in a previous audition for it. “My mate had got down to the final two to play Albert then didn’t get it. Once I was out of training, I heard they were doing War Horse again. There’s also a Geordie role in it and I said to my agent ‘could you put me up for Albert or Geordie?’ and he put me up for Albert.”

Coming home on tour will be special, not least because he’ll be celebrating his 25th birthday the day after the last performance.

“All my mates from Newcastle will be coming to see it; there’ll be about 40 of them in the stalls on one night. My mam and dad are also coming - if they’re all going on the same night it will be like my big party!”

Bob has found a similar connection with audiences in Dublin where they’ve just enjoyed sell-out performances. “The Irish have a great culture of stories and music and horses so they were bound to get it.”

Touring is second nature to Bob, who is still managing to squeeze in gigs, and now South Africa, home of the puppet company, has been added to the War Horse run. Bob thinks the wartime setting, after its own Boer Wars, will resonate there. But then the heart of the story, peppered with humour and darkness, will connect with everybody.

“I think the success of the show is down to the human element of the story - a relationship, getting separated and reunited - which everybody can associate with.”

And we had better be prepared to shed a few tears along the way. “The whole play is an emotional roller-coaster,” adds Bob.

“Audiences by the end are absolutely drained. It’s very powerful storytelling.”

War Horse makes its North East debut at Sunderland Empire on April 30 and runs until May 17. Visit <a href = 'www.atgtickets.com'>www.atgtickets.com</a> or call 0191 566 1040.


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