War Horse - The Story in Concert, Orchestra of Opera North, Leeds Town Hall, Sunday 25th November 2018

THE journey of War Horse - from Sir Michael Morpurgo’s best selling book, to the National Theatre’s stunning stage production and Stephen Spielberg’s film - is now taking concert halls by storm.

Premiered at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 2016, War Horse -The story in Concert, is an utterly compelling emotional roller coaster experience - a two hour-long narrative for orchestra, choir, actors and a solo singer. Adrian Sutton’s lush, thrilling and vividly descriptive music is interwoven with the story of the First World War as seen through the eyes of Joey the horse. Amy Lane’s atmospheric black and white video film is projected onto a giant cinema screen above the orchestra and uses Rae Smith’s amazing artwork from the National Theatre’s production. Smith’s beautiful charcoal drawings appear to be fleshed out by the artist with incredible speed as we watch and listen.

There are joyous illustrations of the fine horse Joey with Albert, his devoted young owner; of gently rolling hills, undisturbed rural life, and Joey nuzzling up against Topthorn his beloved horse pal. But all too soon, this idyllic picture gives way to the weapons of war; troops marching into action, blinding flashes, battle scarred landscapes beneath leaden skies and - most harrowing of all - a horse rearing up with fear-crazed eyes and flared nostrils. The terrified animal is entangled in a barbed wire barricade. Awesome footage of a tank rumbling towards Joey - the first one he had ever seen - is depicted with brutish rhythmic force by the Orchestra of Opera North conducted by David Angus.

The sixty piece Orchestra was joined on the stage of Leeds Town Hall by the author himself and distinguished actress Juliet Stevenson. Stevenson’s ringingly clear voicing of Joey and Albert made us hang on her every word. Sir Michael’s rich and gravelly tones created a host of other characters ranging from Albert’s drunken father to kindly farmers or British and German officers. The forty voices of St Peter’s Singers injected more vocal colour including the boisterous music hall song Goodbye Dolly Gray, and a tear jerking performance of Silent Night. The plaintive tones of Ben Murray as The Songman added an extra frisson of poignancy to an extraordinary and emotional event that brought the capacity audience to its feet.

Geoffrey Mogridge