The award-winning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel is in its final weeks in the West End, doubtless making plenty of money for the National Theatre, where it originated in 2012.
Christopher Boone (Sam Newton) is a fifteen year old boy on the autism spectrum, a maths genius who finds it hard to function with the chat and metaphors of daily life.
In our glimpse into Christopher’s world, we see and hear how overwhelming everyday activities are to him (act two’s train and tube journey’s are especially evocative).
His father (Stuart Laing) struggles to cope with his clever and challenging child, sometimes overboiling with frustration he instantly regrets. His decision to tell a catastrophic lie leads to the events which close the first half (as sounds, lights, collapsing numbers and falling letters contribute to the boy’s reaction to a shock), and into the adventures of act two.
Newton, adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott create a powerful and believable depiction of the complexities of autism, with a cohesive balance between the comic perception of everyday statements (“the apple of his eye”) and the pathos of emotional attachments (father, mother, neighbour’s dog. pet rat, new puppy).
The supporting cast are uniformly good – Emma Beattie as the mother who couldn’t cope stood out, but I must note them all. (Sadly the lack of a programme leads me to struggle a bit to assign names to roles).
Bunny Christie’s set is a box which displays material drawn on the floor and generated text and adverts, and utilises hidden doors and storage space very well, plus an inspired use of the front of the stage as a platform on the London Underground.
The technical wizardry on display has rightly gained plaudits but ultimately this is a show with heart, starting with that curious incident of the dog and the garden fork, and ending with a post-curtain call maths equation.
As part of the commerations marking the end of the First World War, the acclaimed adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel returns to the National Theatre eleven years after its debut. War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, adapted by Nick Stafford, designed by Rae Smith, and produced in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.
Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) rears Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse, even persuading him to plough the fields on the farm. His father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) is a feckless drinker, whose decision to stay home and look after the business in the last war has left him behind his successful brother, Arthur (William Ilkley). His wife (Jo Castleton) has become resigned to her marriage but fiercely protects her son and his interests.
Once war is declared, Ted smells money and sells Joey to the Army for use as a cavalry horse for sympathetic Major Nicholls (Ben Ingles): Albert vows that they will be together again someday, and eventually circumstance forces the sixteen year-old to follow cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) into battle, and thus the fortunes of both man and horse are followed until the day of Armistice.
By utilising puppetry to bring life to Joey and his fellow battle horse, Topthorn, and to birds, a goose who provides comic diversion in lighter days, and the equine victims of conflict, this production provides an anthropomorphism which stays close to Joey’s narration of the original novel.
His bond with Albert, then Topthorn, and later with the sympathetic German captain Friedrich (Peter Becker) and French girl Emile (Joelle Brabban) is perfectly conveyed, and you quickly forget that these animals are brought to life by gifted puppeteers inhabiting their hearts and hinds.
A sparsley dressed set backed by simple video projection conjures up Albert’s home farm, No Man’s Land, the parade ground, a French village, and a field hospital. The sound and lighting design, the interludes with the Song Man (Bob Fox), and the acting of Dennis, Becker, Castleton and the sergeant (Jason Furnival) in particular, make this production an emotional rollercoaster, which does not outstay its 165 minute running time, and which treats the memories of serving men and animals in conflict with respect.
I previously saw War Horse during NT Live, in 2014, when it was still running at the New London Theatre. It was a rather different experience to this one, but still powerful. If you wish to catch War Horse (2018), then you will need to try for Friday Rush or day tickets for the remaining performances (to the 5th January 2019).
After that, the production continues its UK tour, visiting Glasgow, Sunderland, Canterbury, Stoke-on-Trent, then visits Ireland (Dublin) and New Zealand (Auckland). I wish everyone involved luck for a successful run, and I would urge prospective audiences to go and book for this superb adaptation.
This reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical about a 35-year old man, Bobby, who juggles freedom with the wish of his married friends that he finds a lasting romance, makes Bobby become Bobbie, a woman dealing with the same preoccupations.
Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie now has three boyfriends (Theo, Andy and P.J.) who have the trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy in Act One. Of the five couples who interfere with her life in the name of friendship, one are a gay couple planning their wedding, leading to the hilarity of Getting Married Today where a neurotic “Jamie” (Jonathan Bailey) panics about whether dependable Paul (Alex Gaumond) is the right man for him.
Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes) constantly belittle each other, but in here there is love, too, as Harry explains in one of the great songs of the score, Sorry/Grateful, joined by David and Larry. Sarah is perhaps borderline bulimic, and Harry is a drunk, but their marriage can stand it because “everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”.
Susan and Peter (Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell) find they are far better divorced than married; while Joanne and Larry (Patti LuPone and Ben Lewis) keep going as she is irritated by him and he is fascinated by her. In the original show, Joanne propositions Bobby, but here she offers her husband to Bobbie under a sugar daddy arrangement, which didn’t work in the same way for me.
Jenny and David (Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders) are square and settled, and humour Bobbie by smoking the joint she offers them, clearly signalling they are grown up enough to move on from all that, and she isn’t.
Bobbie wears killer red heels throughout, and we see her being used by geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young), who decides she isn’t marriage material, and by self-obsessed P.J. (George Blagden), who sees the universe revolving around him (Another Hundred People) rather than making any meaningful connection with others.
A night with dumb Andy (Richard Fleeshman) – formerly April the air stewardess – who has to fly off to Barcelona gives rise to a couple of surreal scenes, with the husbands of Bobbie’s friends visiting her bedroom while she is in coitus, and a dream sequence of many mirrored Bobbies and what could happen if she marries any of her three boyfriends.
The set is excellent, starting with a small lightbox that grows into a line of interconnected rooms, and some use of a box which rises from and sinks below stage level. Bobbie’s birthday balloons, too, become as small as in Alice in Wonderland, or are large as to be suffocating.
The songs do not survive the transformation intact: I was particularly sorry to lose the original, poignant lyrics of Someone Is Waiting, an Act One solo for Bobbie who considers how a combination of her friends may make the perfect mate for her. The same problem hampers Getting Married Today and Barcelona (mistaking Andy’s name for Freddy instead of April’s for June is not quite as funny).
There are compensations, though. Patti LuPone’s The Ladies Who Lunch lives up to expectations, Rosalie Craig’s Being Alive, which closes the show, is moving and effective, and the ensemble number Side by Side is livened up by a farcical bit of movement work.
I can’t get on board with the praise that has been lavished on this production to the point that “the original may never be done again”.
It’s an interesting experiment, and Marianne Elliott is to be congratulated on making it such fun and relevant to middle-aged women (and Sondheim himself for allowing and facilitating the changes to his exquisitely crafted songs), but for me, it didn’t quite come off.
This remains my favourite Sondheim from a songs alone point of view, but I find that Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd all have a more coherent storyline. Company remains extremely cynical about relationships, and where for a man the concept of Have I Got a Girl [Guy] For You seemed acceptable laddish banter, when sung by women to another woman it just seems a bit sad.