by Lynn on March 3, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following productions were reviewed on Friday, March 2, 2012, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM. WAR HORSE at the Princess of Wales Theatre; THE NEVERENDING STORY at Young People’s Theatre until March 17.

The host was Rose Palmieri

1) It’s been a big week for theatre so that means Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer, is here to tell us all about it.

What have you got for us this week, Lynn?

I’ve seen a little play called WAR HORSE at the Princess of Wales Theatre, presented by Mirvish Productions, and THE NEVERENDING STORY at Young People’s Theatre.

It’s interesting that both productions are based on children’s books.

2) You have talked about hype before.

How the advertising and such whips up all this media frenzy about a show. The hype over WAR HORSE has been extraordinary. What’s the big deal? Is it justified?

It has been at fever pitch for months and months. And yes, if a theatre company has oodles of money they can pay for advertising or press agents to whip up the hype and create interest. Often it’s not justified. In the case of WAR HORSE it is.

What’s the big deal? It’s purely theatrically magical. No bells and whistles of other art forms to dazzle. No clever filmic tricks. No pyrotechnics. No falling chandeliers or helicopters. It’s just theatrically stunning.

It uses theatricality in the best sense of the word, and the audience’s imagination. And it respects the audience enough so that they will use its imagination to realize the story.

3) Ok, what is the story?


It’s based on a kid’s book written in 1982 by British writer, Michael Morpurgo. It was not one of Morpurgo’s best sellers. Then in 2007, the National Theatre in London dramatized the book—Nick Stafford did the adaptation. Instant sold-out houses. It won every award it could. Moved to the West End. Sold out houses. Opened in New York…at Lincoln Center Theater. last April. Same thing…sold out and awards galore.

It has captured the imagination and hearts of audiences where ever it plays because it’s a love story between a boy named Albert and his horse named Joey.

Set in England in Devon at the beginning of WWI. Albert’s father sells Joey to the British Cavalry to go and fight in France unbeknownst to Albert. The money will come in handy to pay the mortgage on the family farm.

Albert’s father is not a success and has struggled for respect all his life. Getting this money will help with his self-esteem. When Albert finds out his father sold Joey he enlists (he’s 16 and underage) and goes to France to find his horse and bring him home.

4) We keep on hearing about the astonishing puppets in this show. Tell us about them.

That’s part of the magic of the theatre and they make this production thrilling. The puppets were created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa—Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. They have created birds, vultures, a goose with attitude, and horses. The horses are astonishing. Made of strips of wood and material.

Three men work each life-size puppet. One works the head, one the middle and one the back, the last two hold up the shape of the horse on their shoulders and work a pair of legs. We see the men working the horses in unison and after a while we don’t see them anymore, just a live, breathing horse.

Yes Rose, the horses breathe. The only thing missing are people in the wings with shovels at the ready.

5) The puppets are just part of the production, how about the rest?

Every aspect of this thrilling production creates the world that Albert and Joey inhabit and makes it live. It pricks the imagination and squeezes the heart. The original direction from London is recreated here by Alex Sims. Each production is different, with their own idiosyncrasies.

Some aspects are better here than any other production I’ve seen and I’ve seen four counting this one. We see the young Joey, spindly-legged and awkward, change into the full grown, muscular Joey before our eyes. No smoke, no mirrors, just smart direction and staging and the audience seeing and believing.

Joey galloping across the countryside with Albert astride him is first suggested by animated images above the set—wonderful work by Rae Smith–and then we see the horse on stage in galloping motion that’s thrilling.

The horror of war is created with evocative, brilliant lighting by Paule Constable, music by Adrian Sutton and sound by Christopher Shutt. A perfect combination of the three of them.

The cast is a dandy ensemble. As Albert, Alex Furber is fresh-faced, honourable and loving to Joey. Brad Rudy plays the tricky part of Albert’s father, Ted. Ted is so disappointed in life. He drinks. He blusters. But Rudy gives him heart and we care about him.

Tamara Bernier-Evans is wonderful as Albert’s mother. She is feisty and compassionate about both her husband and her son. I liked Patrick Galligan as Friedrich Műller, a German Officer, conflicted in the war, missing his family, respectful of the horses.

There really are no enemies in a Morpurgo story. Morpurgo usually writes about people and or animals in some kind of distress, or challenging position that requires tenacity, loyalty, character to deal with them and redemption of some kind.

WAR HORSE has that in abundance and the same here.

If I have a quibble it’s that accents tend to roam and perhaps a bit too much yelling. That will settle as they play the play. But on the whole—thrilling, moving, theatre.

WAR HORSE is one of the five best productions I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.


6) Woow. Let’s talk about THE NEVERENDING STORY at Young People’s Theatre. It’s also based on a kid’s book. What about it?

The book is based on a German novel by Michael Ende that crossed over from a kid’s book to be read by adults too—perhaps like Harry Potter books.

Adapted for the stage by David S. Craig, one of our most gifted playwrights/directors of children’s theatre. Again the importance of the imagination is vital here as well.

It’s about a lonely kid named Bastian who is bullied at school. His mother has recently died. His father is grieving and has his own troubles. Bastian finds solace in a magical, compelling book called THE NEVERENDING STORY. It’s about a fantastic place called Fantastica, a world of stories, which is facing destruction by a horrible presence called the Nothing. Only a brave hero named Atreyu can save it.

But he must go on a quest (twas ever thus) to solve mysteries, overcome evil and never give up until he was done. He’s also got to find a name for the Childlike Empress of Fantastica, but that’s a trifle….

So like WAR HORSE, the author here, Michael Ende and his adaptor, David S. Craig deal with people overcoming obstacles who are determined, never give up and use their imagination to solve their problems.

I also love that it encourages reading—Bastian is so caught up in the book, he thinks of nothing else.

And how does this production do?

David S. Craig directs this with such eye-popping imagination it’s a wonder to behold. When you get a theatre full of school kids to be impressed and still, you know you’ve succeeded. Characters sprout huge wings to fly right before out eyes. The dreaded NOTHING comes from nowhere and overpowers whatever is in its way. Again simplicity is used to great effect.

The cast is strong and committed with lovely work being done by Natasha Greenblatt at Bastian. She has a look of surprise and sadness mixed together that is quite touching. And she has that innocence of a kid who is inquisitive and sweet…and I believed her as a boy.

As Atreyu the hero, Adamo Ruggiero is compelling, committed and full of doubt—“I can’t do this task” he thinks—but of course he can because he is determined.

A quibble—it’s a bit too long. I saw it with school kids and at certain times they fidgeted.

So two cross-over shows—based on kid’s books that are also for adults and the same can be said for their productions. Although I wouldn’t take a kid under 9 to WAR HORSE

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at www.slotkinletter.com

WAR HORSE plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre;
tickets at www.mirvish.com

THE NEVERENDING STORY plays at Young People’s Theatre until March 17.
Tickets: www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

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