Maybe it was jet-lag, but suddenly the Whingers’ 11+ hour flight from Peru seemed like a breeze compared with the 80-minute first act of War Horse at the National Theatre.
At least KLM provided the Whingers with some in-flight entertainment. Perhaps the National might follow suit and introduce seat-back systems featuring a massive menu of plays from which to choose? And maybe some games. Think about it, Nick. After all, the NFT (we still refuse to call it the BFI Southbank) seems to have thrown the towel in regarding its programming and now lets you watch what you want from 600 titles in its “mediatheque”.
Yet the evening had begun so promisingly.
As the Whingers sat down for their first pre-theatre bottle of Merlot at Canteen, their attention was drawn by an excited French waitress to the many police vehicles littering up the area. “The Queen is coming!” she cried.
Now this was a bit unexpected. Quite a few people have welcomed the Whingers back to London but we had no idea that Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith was a fan.
Phil got into quite a tizzy and proceeded to practise his curtsey, knocking a glass of wine over in the process. Andrew leapt into action by throwing Phil’s coat into the resulting puddle to save Her Maj’s sensible court shoes from getting soiled and, perhaps predictably, a row ensued.
Anyway, there must have been some kind of mix-up because the poor woman ended up being guided to a rather dull sounding Royal Gala at the Royal Festival Hall apparently featuring some amateur choirs including Billinghurst Choral Society and the London Forest Choir from Walthamstow and where she ended up chatting with Billy Bragg and getting his autograph (we’re not making this bit up).
Thankfully, the Whingers were reassuringly back on home territory once inside the National Theatre and trying to deposit their suitcases (we had practically come straight from the airport) at the Olivier cloakroom which had been horrendously understaffed (to be fair, how could they have possibly known they were going to get a sudden rush of people at 7.20?).
Not wishing to attract another scolding by attempting to use an alternative cloakroom (this is forbidden under the National Theatre’s bye-laws), the Whingers waited obediently alongside a woman whose patience was being tested to her limits. Having been overlooked several times, she interjected with”I don’t wish to be rude…” but her pleas fell on deaf ears. The Whingers egged her on to be rude but she seemed to sense that she was being used for some ulterior purpose (i.e. cheap copy) and kept buttoned.
So, to the play. Things got off to a worrying start as actors with earnest faces sporting fishing rods with birds on the end of them wafted around the stage. Phil became anxious: he’d seen this somewhere before recently, where was it? Oh, yes – in the excellent Saint Joan by the same director (Marianne Elliott) on the very same stage. Only at SJ they’d nearly poked out the eye of someone sitting in the front stalls, so these guys weren’t taking any chances and played it very safe keeping the line completely reeled in. Most disappointing.
Anyway, in case you have no idea what we’re talking about, War Horse is a children’s book by the prolific Michael Morpurgo who – with 100 books under his belt – seems to be the Barbara Cartland of children’s literature.
He was apparently Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. Now the Whingers – both being happily childless and Phil almost certainly being barren by now – had no idea that such a post even existed but according to Wikipedia “the position was established after a campaign spearheaded by Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo” which has given the Whingers a fantastic idea and we are going to spearhead a campaign for a Whinging Laureate although the DCMS is going to have to stump up more than £10k every two years to keep Phil in Wet Ones.
[Apologies at this point if we seem to be not talking very much about the play but we are "locating it in the wider discourse"]
Anyway, the point is that Nick Stafford’s adaptation of this children’s book about the First World War “told” through the eyes of a horse is apparently “suitable for 12 year olds and above” ostensibly because there’s a lot of death in it, but moreover because in rehearsals it was running at 3 hours 20 minutes. Now it is just 3 hours long according to the programme but we can’t testify to that for the usual reasons.
To be fair, everything you heard about the puppetry from the National’s propaganda machine is true. The Handspring Puppet Company has produced some fantastic work – the horses are incredibly lifelike in form and behaviour and imbued with emotions that one wouldn’t have thought possible. It’s fascinating to watch. For about 20 minutes.
Then boredom sets in and you start watching the people manipulating them instead. There were so many hands inside the horse that Phil was put in mind of All Creatures Great and Small and came over all queasy until he became distracted by the ear-plug sported by one of the puppeteers.
Co-directors Marianne Elliott (who we used to like) and Tom Morris have opted to transform this slight story into an epic piece of theatre but unfortunately “epic” is defined as “protracted” in the Whingers’ dictionary: interminable singing (the kind where ev-ry syll-a-ble is em-pha-sised) brings the already torpid pace to a complete standstill at times. And did we really need a brass band? By the time the accordion was trundled on Phil was beginning to wish that he was back struggling for air in a draughty adobe brick hut at 4,200 metres on a Lake Titicaca island without electricity or proper toilets.
There’s only so much puppetry an adult mind can take (Andrew can, of course, cope with slightly more than Phil) however good it is, and the Whingers made their excuses and their escape at the interval.
Were the Whingers’ brains working at double speed with their sudden rush of oxygen or was this production really as plodding as it seemed? Let us just say that Would-Be Whinger Mark also left in the interval of his own volition. And this is a man who enjoys listening to recorder music. Let’s just leave it at that.