Joey and Topthorn at Circa on Jellicoe

Amazing close-up of our proudly South African War Horses

Liz at Lancaster Pick of the week
Pick of the Week for 5th June. Joey and Topthorn at Circa on Jellicoe Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse



This week’s pick has to be the exhibition at Circa: Joey and
Topthorn – 
featuring the 2 main puppets from War Horse along with other graphic works and sculptures by the Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company.

Who are Joey and Topthorn?

In the staging of Morpurgo’s Warhorse, Topthorn meets Joey as a cavalry horse and Joey is the only horse who can keep up with him. When the cavalry is captured by the Germans, Topthorn and Joey are put to work as cart-pulling horses.  Because he is unused to pulling carts, Topthorn needs Joey’s help to do his job.  One day, after a particularly gruelling hill, Topthorn just can’t manage any more. He silently asks Joey for help, but Joey cannot help and as Topthorn dies, Joey mourns and the audience weep.

Talkabout with Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones

South Africa has such talent and so many international successes and Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are but 2 of these.  I felt so privileged to hear them speak in person about the puppets at Circa on Saturday. I had listened to/watched their amazing Ted talk and have seen every one of Handspring productions, bar one, but to have been party to their real-life generosity, humour, passion, and extraordinary creativity as well as their obvious love for each other and their work, was truly special.  (I suggest that if you go to see the two puppets ‘in the flesh’ you watch the Ted Talk beforehand as it will explain the mechanics of the puppets).

War Horse: International blockbuster

And of course one can’t help but be deeply proud of our local talent: War Horse is the most successful play ever mounted by the Royal National Theatre of London and has been performed to over six million people worldwide. Apparently income from the play rendered the theatre relatively independent of National Arts Council funding, and allowed the building of the now famous Shed Theatre for experimental work.

Even Queenie loves Joey


Also Joey is famously beloved by Queen Elizabeth. Adrian had some wonderfully human and humorous stories to tell about the Queen’s response to Joey and War Horse – which she went to see. Joey was invited to Windsor Castle for the military tattoo and led the Royal Household Cavalry in royal salute. He also led the National Theatre’s tribute to the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee.

Technicalities of building & operating the puppets

The sheer scale of the horses close-up is awe inspiring
The sheer scale of the horses close-up is awe inspiring Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

Adrian explained that it takes 28 people eight months to build a complete set of puppets for War Horse. They are made of cane, leather and tyvec, (for the manes and tails) a very strong material used in book-binding which is light but durable. Some of the challenges include making a horse puppet strong enough to carry a rider but light enough to be manipulated by the 2 body puppeteers (the hind and the heart puppeteer).  Puppeteers have intensive training for 2 weeks (including observing the behaviour of live horses) and then many weeks of training in rehearsals. Their training also includes Handspring’s basic principles based on breath as well as communicating with each other as the only noises they are allowed to make are horse noises (of which there are about 8 – neighing, whinnying, snorting, blowing,nickering, sighing etc.)

 Raising money for Handspring Trust’s Barrydale Community project

The exhibition at Circa is a taste of what is still to come at a charity auction at Bonhams in London where a set of War Horse puppets which will be sold off later this year (13th Sept).  This auction is to raise money for the annual 16th December parade of puppets in Barrydale, a small Karoo town. The Handspring Trust, the not-for-profit arm of the Handspring Puppet Company, gets together annually with other NGOs like Net vir Pret which organises after-school and holiday activities for local children, and the Magpie Art Collective that runs craft projects in the community. They all work together with the Barrydale community and help train young people to make puppets. This year they will be making seven life-size puppet elephants. The proceeds from the Bonhams auction will go towards this.

Altogether, eight sets of War Horse puppets exist. Two sets are still in use: one in China and one is reserved for the next UK tour of War Horse, which will start in September 2017.

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