If one wanted proof of a show where the stagecraft is all, trumping in the process a skimpy-to-nonexistent script, look no further than Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris's ravishing production of War Horse, a show ostensibly intended for younger audiences that looks guaranteed to be pulling in crowds of all ages for some time to come. That means, of course, turning a blind eye (or, more accurately, a deaf ear) to a text whose idea of scripted drama runs to, I'm going to teach him to plow and you can't stop me! But one is willing to grant all manner of concessions confronted with the sheer beauty of a complete theatrical experience in which puppetry, lighting, and sound come together to remind audiences of the imaginative wonder made possible only via live performance: think of that feeling of anticipation and exuberance you probably had during the opening number of The Lion King , as Julie Taymor's menagerie of beasts makes its way down the aisle of whatever theatre you happen to be in, and multiply that across 2-and-a-half hours. That's just one way of approximating the affect of a staging that, by the way, won't do anything to dispel the now cliche-laden belief that the British care more about animals than they do about people.
Nick Stafford's script is adapted from the celebrated book by Michael Morpurgo, and the result is an evening that taps multiple veins of nostalgia, all of them running very deep. Set during World War 1, the narrative gives us a horse's eye view of the Great War, as the equine Joey is pressed into service on one side of combat and then the other prior to a reuniting of a boy and his horse that mines feelings that, as they say, lie too deep for words. Might that explain the thinness of a text that gives every evidence of having been modified extensively in rehearsals: for starters, it's highly unusual to find a production that comes in a good half-hour shorter than the running time indicated in the National Theatre programme. Whatever the reason, you have to take on faith the shards of drama, such as they are, that pit the play's central human being, Luke Treadaway's sweet-faced Albert Narracott, against his stern, unforgiving father Ted (Toby Sedgwick), while mother Rose (Thusitha Jayasundera) frets busily from the sidelines.
The point is, notwithstanding the best abilities of young Treadaway as well as National veteran Angus Wright as a German officer who harbors his own abiding affection for quadrupeds, the evening belongs to the dazzling work of designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company and the various talents - Sedgwick and Craig Leo chief among them - who give fully dimensional life not just to every whinnying, neighing gesture from this horse or that but also to a rather sweet goose, a fearsome crow, and a little French girl, Emilie, who looks ready to commandeer a play all her own, her eyes as wide as those of the spectators for whom this kind of experience constitutes theatrical nirvana. As for those others who want more grit from their animal fables, well, there's always Animal Farm.