Joey's earliest memories were mostly "a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables." But one thing he clearly remembered was the horse sale. "The terror of it stayed with me all of my life," he said.
No wonder. Joey was the one being sold.
That's how the popular 1982 book "War Horse" by children's author Michael Morpurgo begins. Told in Joey's voice, the story moves quickly from Devonshire in southwestern England, where the horse is lovingly raised on a farm by a boy named Albert, to the hideous battlefields of France in World War I after Joey is sold to the British army for use in the cavalry.
What happens to the horse and to Albert, who fibs his way into uniform to search for Joey, makes quite an adventure. With its strong and disturbing images, its lessons about friendship, bravery and loyalty, this saga was probably destined to be adapted for another medium. But the stage? Given the focus on a horse, surely a TV or movie prospect was more likely.
"War Horse" did eventually make it to the screen in a 2011 Stephen Spielberg film. But that was a few years after the book had been transformed, thanks to inspired use of puppetry, into one of the most successful stage works of our time.
The theatrical version of "War Horse," which will be hitched to the Hippodrome this week, packs an extraordinary visual punch. That helps to explain why the show has been running in London's West End since 2009 and also made an impact on Broadway, where it earned five Tony Awards, including Best Play, in 2011.
"War Horse" has been touring North America for a year and a half now. Another tour is taking place in the U.K. and Ireland. There have been productions in Berlin and Australia as well.
"No one here predicted it would be a hit," says Chris Harper, producer at Britain's National Theatre. "There was a lot of doubt about it. We started out figuring we'd get maybe 50 performances. But this has been our most successful show in our 50 years. Our new theater was paid for by the profits of 'War Horse' on Broadway."
This good fortune began when staffers at the company were looking around for a prospect to fill the slot of an annual family show. The mother of the National Theatre's then-associate director Tom Morris suggested that they read a children's book that had been published and largely forgotten 25 years earlier, a book called "War Horse."
"So we did," Harper says. "Then we called up Michael Morpurgo and said, 'Hello, can we adapt your book?' He said OK, but he wanted to know how we were going to do it. We told him, 'With puppets.' "
That gave the author pause.
"Absurd, I thought," Morpurgo told the Telegraph, "but it's the National Theatre, for goodness sake. Maybe they know what they're doing."
The theater engaged the innovative Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town, South Africa, to design life-size puppets for Joey and the other important equine character, Topthorn, a stallion who shares with Joey a troubled fate that includes capture by the Germans.
More layers were added to "War Horse" as the play, adapted by Nick Stafford, took shape; richly atmospheric music by John Tams and Adrian Sutton became a particularly crucial element. During the development process, which lasted more than two years, the creative team questioned everything.
"How can you have a hit where the lead character can't speak? You can do that in a book, obviously, but we didn't want it to look funny onstage," Harper says. "Would puppets hold an audience's attention?"
In the end, worries were swept aside. "War Horse" galloped into the spotlight, winning over the public and, largely, the press.
The production, directed by Morris and Marianne Elliott and designed by Rae Smith (they all received Tonys for their work, as did lighting and sound designers), manages to tell an epic story in a personal way that can pull in adults and young people alike.
As any boy-and-his-horse tale would do, this one deals with growing up, learning responsibility and the like. But the issue of war and its toll on humans and animals, not to mention values, gives the play a much deeper resonance. It's a story of life and, unflinchingly, of death.
Above all, like the original source material, this remains a horse-centric experience, and that's what seems to grab people more than anything.