It is a West End theatre smash hit. It has been seen by over six million people and now in its eighth year, it has just welcomed a brand new cast to its stage.
The critically acclaimed War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo, tells the moving tale of a horse sold by “Albert” to the cavaly upon the outbreak of World War I, and is subsequently shipped to France. “Joey” is soon caught up in enemy lines until he eventually finds himself in no man’s land. Albert, still not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.
Horse & Hound caught up with Chris Milford, who is the man responsible for playing Joey’s heart in the show, to find out more about the production and how the cast continue to bring the story to life day in, day out.
1. Limited experience
Chris admits he has only ridden a couple of times in his life. “I once rode a horse in New Zealand while travelling,” he says. “But I’m now completely obsessed with horses. I recently had a day off and I went to meet some friends in Southampton. While there I insisted we went to see the New Forest ponies in their natural environment. My friends thought I had lost the plot!” confesses Chris.
2. Dream part
Chris first went to see War Horse three years ago where he says he was “completely blown away” by it. “I rang my agent immediately after the show and told him I absolutely had to get a part in the show. Three years later here I am after a successful audition at the end of 2014 – it really is a dream come true.”
3. Spending hours on YouTube
A major part of Chris’ rehearsal time was learning about equine behaviour. “Nobody stood there and told us how horses behave; we had to go out and learn it for ourselves,” explains Chris. “We spent a lot of time at the London Equestrian Centre, just walking around the stables and watching the horses out in the fields, observing their behaviour. We looked at how the horses moved around their stables, like when they kick their doors for attention and how they move their tail, eyes and ears in different environments. We had to know their general likes, dislikes and reactions so that it became second nature for us on stage.
“When I wasn’t watching horses in the flesh, I spent hours watching videos of them on YouTube. At the end of the whole process we had to give a sort of show and tell presentation to the rest of the cast to demonstrate what we had learnt!
“The truth is, you never stop learning about equine behaviour – I‘m constantly on the lookout for little bits of movement I can incorporate into Joey in the show.”
4. Practice, practice, practice
It’s not just acting Chris has to worry about during the show. The Joey Handspring puppet weighs a whopping 10½ stone (and even more when Joey is ridden!) which is shared between three people who bring Joey to life. “We worked hard to get into good physical shape for the show, which included a lot of circuit training,” says Chris.
5. Getting lost
In order to play Joey to the highest standard possible, Chris says he has to get “lost” in the character of Joey. “It’s not like a ‘normal’ stage show where you know your lines inside out and you can auto-pilot through the show if needs be. The key to making Joey come to life is reacting to what is going on around him – you really have to pay attention to every little movement to make it believable.”
6. Communication on stage
After three months of rehearsals the new cast took to the stage, but how do the three actors responsible for Joey communicate with eachother while performing? “Initially we talked quietly to eachother,” explains Chris. “But as we’ve got to know eachother’s rhythms we didn’t need to talk anymore and we just knew instinctively where we were going to move to, what noises we would make and so on. Having said that, we do use different breaths to signal to eachother sometimes.”
7. The final push
So what is the trickiest part of the show for Chris to manoeuvre Joey through? “The scene is called ‘Joey’s night’. It’s right at the end of the show and it really requires the three of us to really push ourselves. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the scene sees Joey gallop around the stage before becoming tangled in wire. It’s physically and emotionally demanding, but thankfully this is exactly what we want the audience to feel.”
8. The best bit
“My favourite part of the show is either the scene I have mentioned, Joey’s night, or Joey’s initial entrance as an adult to the show. He jumps into the stage which gets a great reaction from the audience and sets the show up really well,” says Chris.
War Horse is at the New London Theatre. For further information and tickets please visit: www.warhorseonstage.com