War Horse

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

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The horses are, as you must have heard, terrific. Sat on an aisle in the stalls, hero Joey passed within inches of my shoulder and the feeling of bulk and weight that the three operators create in the beast was palpable - "puppetry" is almost a misleading term. But let's hear it for the birds - welcoming swallows, a clown goose (wheeled around by Joseph Richardson) and the conspiracy of carrion crows on the battlefield - that also make this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book so special.

Comprehensively upstaged by all this animation, not excluding the projections of Rae Smith's drawings above, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the human performances tend towards the shrill. If the first half includes some shouting across the minimal set of village auction and farmstead, it all goes a bit 'Allo 'Allo after the interval, as Martin Wenner's German officer and others try to convery the incomprehensibility of one side to the other, and the invaded French.

But to nitpick over the script and some of the acting is really beside the point. Like teenage soldier Albert Narracott (Lee Armstrong) the narrative follows the titular horse to the horror of the Western front, and the sound-and-light design and Adrian Sutton's music, effectively contrasting with the songs of the time that John Tams has given to Bob Fox, make sure that the relentless barrage and brutal weaponry of war are eloquently conveyed. So too are Morpurgo's messages - the usefulness of an immigrant (draughthorse/thoroughbred) crossbreed, the importance of being true to your word, and the indiscrimate effects of mechanisation among them - in a piece of theatre that is stylishly effective and movingly compelling.