The Butterfly Lion (1996) is a later tale but it too has at its heart the intense bond between a young lad and an animal, and it too has the First World War woven into the action.
Director Daniel Buckroyd's staging nods further at War Horse similarities by having puppets conjuring up the animals that our young hero, Bertie, encounters during his childhood in South Africa - the white lion he rescues, a persuasively modelled head and mane with a cleverly rudimentary fabric body, becomes a real character in the capable hands of Lloyd Notice.
But somehow there's a clunk and a plod to this production, sadly diluting the intended charm and dramatic tensions of this special relationship as it survives cruel separation - Bertie is sent to boarding school in England, the lion is sold to a French circus - before resolving in a sentimental (if improbable) reunion in war-torn France. With locations to-ing and fro-ing from rural Wiltshire, where a chalk lion on a hillside anchors the story-within-a-story format, to 1900s South African veld and the grim war zones, there's a superficial busy-ness that the ensemble works hard to sustain - too hard, when it comes to playing incidental roles.
This "faux energy" spills into bouts of breezy, boyish over-acting from Adam Buchanan as Bertie, leaving the more mature Gwen Taylor (Millie, the keeper of the tale) to deliver the subtler voice of lonely childhood, while celebrating the abiding kinship between Bertie and his lion.