A collective gasp goes up as Joey, unbelievably a collection of wooden limbs, is brought out onto the stage, rearing and kicking. The life size wooden horses (as well as a charming goose who gains a surprising amount of sympathy from the audience) are provided by the Handspring Puppet company, and are undeniably the stars of this show. It is no surprise that they continue to delight audiences everywhere, their life-like quality and the vast array of the emotions they convey is incredible.
“No one’s looking at the actors, everyone’s looking at the horses” – Jasper William Cartwright (Billy Narcott)
The full sized horse puppets, weighing ten stone and made of pine, are manned by three puppeteers harnessed inside. These three people are responsible for the horse’s movement and sound, and only perform three or four times a week because of the physical exertion necessary to this role. They do an incredible job of becoming almost invisible for the duration of the play. A particularly moving puppetry moment was Topthorn’s death, after which the puppeteers withdrew from the horse’s frame and stood aside, taking with them all the creature’s animation and life.
Albert Narcott, played by Thomas Dennis who also starred in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, does a great job as wide eyed, country boy Albert, filling the whole theatre with his voice and bringing the best out of Joey. Dennis refers to himself as “the 4th puppeteer” since it is his interaction that will convince us of Joey’s living, breathing reality. He certainly succeeds, and the audience fall in love with the thoroughbred just as he does.
” if I treat it as a piece of wood that’s going to break the magic” – Thomas Dennis (Albert Narcott)
The show peaks at its beginning; the blossoming friendship between the young boy and his horse allows a subtle observation of Joey as a quivering, nervous young colt. In the quiet, with a backdrop of dappled sunlight, the horse really comes into its own and transports us to the English countryside. Another brilliant scene is Joey and Topthorn’s battle for the top spot. With no human characters on the stage and left to follow their base instincts the puppets take on a fearful wildness that convinces us even further of their authenticity.
After the interval what began as a thrilling use of gun shots and strobe lighting begins to feel a little worn out. In some scenes shouting eradicates what could be a more subtle, emotive use of the voice. A few more quiet words passed between soldiers might move the audience more than so much gunfire and dry ice.
That said, some action scenes are fantastic. The fragmenting, exploding wooden frames of the horses conveys their fragility, and the horror of their deaths, without the unnecessary gore usually found in a battle scene. Bill Fox’s gorgeous folk singing also maintains a more subtle, melancholic tone that counteracts the sometimes tiring war scenes.
(SPOILER ALERT) The story’s bittersweet conclusion is handled very well; without overriding the tragedy of its setting, Joey and Albert’s reunion against all odds allows a small glimmer of hope to remain, even amongst the ruins left by the First World War.
The show will be running at the Brighton Centre until February 10th – tickets are available here.