Michael Morpurgo’s popular children's book is now a hit National Theatre stage show, which has wowed audiences and moved people to tears all across the world. 

The second UK tour of War Horse is underway. Local lads Tom Quinn - from Redditch - and Lewis Howard - who grew up and attended drama school in Birmingham - are puppeteers in the show. What’s On spoke to them about the task of bringing huge on-stage horse puppets to life in front of thousands of people...

It takes three puppeteers to work the entirety of the Joey and Topthorn puppets, so what’s each puppeteer’s specific role?

Tom: My role as the puppeteer of the head of both Joey and Topthorn is to control what the horse is looking at, what it’s thinking and what it’s feeling; to bring the horse to life.
Lewis: As Joey’s heart, I  instigate the breathing so the horse looks alive. Being between the head and the hind means I can see what both are doing, so I can silently translate between the two. If I see the hind wanting to make a certain move, but the head isn’t in the right position just yet to do so, I can hold off the hind form pushing the puppet forwards until the head is in a good position. Then I control the front legs using triggers at the curve of the knee. 

How much time have you both spent studying horse behaviour?

Tom: When we first started, we had a fortnight of just ‘horse academy’, if you like. It was a little puppetry school where all the puppeteers gathered two weeks before the rest of the cast to learn basic movements like walking, trotting and galloping. Then we went to the Kings Troop, the Royal Horse Artillery with all the ceremonial guns and carriages, to watch the real-life Topthorns. Then, that afternoon, we went to a riding stable to look at more chilled-out riding horses. So we watched a bunch of Joeys as well. We were there watching a lot of little behaviours to refine our skills. 
Lewis: One of the most important things is making the horse look as heavy as it should be. The weight of the puppet is on our backs and we’re standing on our own feet, so it takes a lot of practice to sell the idea that it’s a real horse. But there are things that the puppet can’t do, and if you tried to do those things it would make it look less real, so once we got comfortable with the basics, we moved away from horse behaviour and focused on how the puppet can move, and how best to work with what we’ve got. 

Does each team of puppeteers create a slightly different Joey or Topthorn - or even, does each individual puppeteer bring a different personality to the role?

Tom: Yes, it’s the same as any other role. So each team that does Joey and Topthorn brings a slightly different characterisation to life on stage, just like an actor would do when interpreting the lines from Hamlet. We still go through the same acting choices as the speaking parts go through, except we don’t act through our own bodies. We also change a lot of things from each show. For example, one of the nights, one of the actors may choose to shout one of their lines, or walk towards Joey particularly aggressively, which obviously Joey will need to be startled by. We spend a lot of it improvising how we think a horse would react in the situation that’s playing out on stage, and each time something slightly different is created.
Lewis: I know with my team one of us brings more of a focused intensity to it and one of us is a little more cheeky, but I think both are very funny. But, of course, there are certain personalities it’s hard to bring to different parts of the horse. It’s much easier to bring a sense of cheekiness to the head than to the hind, for example. It’s harder to be more aggressive in certain roles. So yes, certain qualities do manifest themselves in each role in the team, while each team also brings something slightly different to the stage.

Tom, how do Topthorn and Joey’s personalities differ, and how do you as a puppeteer bring those different characters out on stage?

Tom: Joey is a hunter, so he’s half thoroughbred and half draught horse. He’s built for riding, not for a lot of the things he’s made to do in the show. He’s quite chilled-out and earthy, whereas Topthorn is just pure thoroughbred, so he’s like a proper feisty officer’s horse. The puppets themselves do a lot of that for us, so Joey in comparison to Topthorn is slightly smaller, and as a head puppeteer, I can extend Topthorn’s neck up really tall. He’s an enormous horse, and we need to convey that proud, feisty side of him.”
It’s easy for people who haven’t seen the show to be dubious about how a puppet can be made realistic on stage. Do either of you have anything to say to people who aren’t yet convinced that they should go and see the show?
Lewis: I first saw it 10 years ago. When my mum told me we were going to see the stage version of War Horse, a book I’d read in school, I didn’t imagine it would be puppets. I assumed there would be projections or something, and there would be a way of getting round it that would give the show a slightly more surreal feel. 
But when baby Joey appears on the stage, as an audience member you don’t want to watch the puppeteers, you want to watch Joey because that’s what’s amazing. Then, when the big horses come out, from afar you can’t see a lot of the mechanisms - the puppets just look so fluid. Anyone who comes to see the show will be surprised by how quickly they forget it’s a puppet horse. I mean, we suspend disbelief all the time in theatre, and this is no exception.

Lewis, you trained at the Birminghan School of Acting. Are you proud to be returning to the city in such an important role?

Lewis: Yes, I’m incredibly happy because originally, when we got the contracts, Birmingham hadn’t been announced and was still a venue to be confirmed. So when I got that news, it was fantastic. To go back there for four weeks as well is even better. I actually haven’t been back to Birmingham since I graduated, so I can’t wait to go back and show everyone around because I’ve been telling the cast all about my favourite places. Going back as Joey is really an honour.

Can you tell us a little bit about the puppets themselves and what they’re made of?

Tom: The puppets are made by a South African company called the Handspring Puppet Company. There are 23 puppets in the whole show, and Handspring make most of them. They’re made from an aluminium frame that sits on top of the hind and heart puppeteers, and there’s a cane cage that sort of sits around them. Then the mane and tail are made using a material called tyvec and bits of leather. So, yeah, those bits rustle and flow but it still has some weight, and between all of the canes there’s a thin mesh gauze so the audience can see out mostly, but in the right light the audience’s view into the cage is obscured.

Is the puppet as heavy to work with as it sounds?

Lewis: Yes, the cage that we’re under is 10 stone, and that’s split between the hind and the heart puppeteers’ backs. Then, the legs are probably a couple of kg each, and then the head has its own weight that the head puppeteer holds up. We wear it as a backpack and it’s something you get used to. It’s like wearing one of those big backpacks for hiking - now only once you take it off do you realise how heavy it’s been. Early in rehearsals it was quite brutal though. Trying to do stuff, be nimble and make a huge horse puppet look realistic while having this huge weight on your back is quite a challenge. 

What are your plans for the future?

Tom: I think this role has given me a bit of a bug for puppetry, but obviously I trained as an actor, so I’m sure I can use all the skills I’ve gained from this role in a whole range of work.
Lewis: As with most actors, I somehow can’t think beyond the current job. I’m sure I’ve opened other doors by doing this role, and it’s taught me new things I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy. It’s like learning a new language or something - a new realm of opportunities have been opened up for me, so I’ll just wait and see what happens next. 


War Horse is at Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 10 Oct - Saturday 3 November, and Regent Theatre, Stoke-On-Trent from Wednesday 27 March - Saturday 6 April 2019.