War Horse - The Story in Concert

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

THIS latest incarnation of Michael

Murpurgo's modern classic story, surely one of the most comprehensively adapted books of the age, is not part of the

14-18 NOW programme of cultural events marking the centenary of the First World War, but would have been a welcome addition to it, and well up to the standard of everything else under that banner.

With the National Theatre stage show

version of War Horse about to set off on tour again, this concert version, while in some ways a spin-off from that, is very much its own event. The puppet incarnation of Joey the horse is obviously the main omission, but in place of that are the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, providing his narrative voice, and projections of the drawing skill of Rae Smith, designer of the stage show. The time lapse animation of her representation of all the characters and the landscape of the story, as well as dramatic monochrome battle scenes, are the surprise highlight of the event. Not unlike the sort of captivating work the older of us will always associate with Tony Hart on BBC TV's Vision On, this is also a side of her talents previously unknown to Scottish theatregoers who have long known of her skill in stagecraft.

Her contribution also makes the whole

storytelling exercise flow seamlessly, providing visual accompaniment to the music of Adrian Sutton, played here by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Sutton' score is given vibrant full life in this version, and it is revealed as a very clever, atmospheric melange of influences from folk music and 20th century cinema scores, of course incorporating the essential folk adaptations of John Tams performed here by seasoned Songman from the stage show, Ben Murray. His partners in the vocal music were the combined forces of Edinburgh University Chamber Choir and Glasgow Chamber Choir, both prepared by chorus master Michael Bawtree and perfectly balanced and pitched. There were some star turns among the orchestra players as well, the brass often crucial and first trumpet Chris Hart to the fore, and fine solos from guest principal clarinet Matt Glendening.

The touring front line of the show is completed by guest orchestra leader Emily Davis, conductor David Charles Abell, Stevenson and author Michael Murpurgo himself. If Juliet Stevenson is as expressive a storyteller as you would wish for, and as musically attentive to her conductor as any of the players, Murpurgo matches her with his repertoire of accents and character voices, as fine an actor as he is a writer, and the engaging centre of all the activity around him.