War Horse – an actor’s story…

All Quiet on the West End Front by William Rycroft

Firstly, I must declare, I know Will a little.  He used to write a wonderful blog Just William’s Luck (which you can still see) back when he was an actor.  When his long run in the West End hit War Horse ended, he moved into the publishing world at Vintage, where I finally got to meet him and see his excellent interviewing technique in action at a couple of Vintage preview evenings. Now he works for Waterstones, again interviewing authors for the company’s website as part of his job.  When I heard he was writing a book about his experiences in War Horse, and crowdfunding it through Unbound, of course I pledged towards getting it published.

War Horse is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the story of the bond between a boy and his horse set around WWI. The play began at the National Theatre in 2007, later transferring into London’s West End where it ran until 2016. It has gone on to become a world-wide hit, an innovative production combining the amazing puppetry that brings Joey and Topthorn, the two horses to life on stage with the drama that explores the awful losses of WWI primarily for an adult audience.

When he set off for a meeting in London to audition to join the West End cast of War Horse expecting a six month contract which would take Will and his family up to the birth of their second child, little did Will know this was the start of a marathon run in a single production for him of over 1700 performances, at first playing a variety of roles each night in the company, then latterly concentrating on Captain Stewart.

Will takes us from that first meeting, through learning the lines and the technical rehearsals, into the show, swapping roles, wearing false moustaches, playing dead on stage, being a puppeteer – and even riding the horses, the exhilaration of reaching the end each night, the good and bad bits, the night Stephen Spielberg came to see the show, the NT Live performance and finally the Last Night of the West End run, on stage and backstage, we get to read about the whole shebang and how they kept the play fresh for so long.

What I found particularly remarkable was that the whole company understudied each other – everyone understudied several roles – and each role was covered by two or more, sometimes four people!   The actors would only find out which roles they’d play each night ‘before the half’ – the 35 minute call before curtain-up, when:

the War Horse company assembled for ‘knock-ons’. This was when a list was read out detailing the knock-on effects of various people’s absences through holiday, illness or injury. On any given night, you see, there were likely to be at least three or four (or more) people missing from the building.  […]

A typical knock-ons session involved four people on holiday and one person ill or injured enough to have been unable to perform their complete ‘track’ in the show.  The list of knock-ons in that instance usually ran to about three or four sides of A4. It covered everything from who played acting roles to the real meat and drink of who would be moving wooden poles, getting in mustering horses and puppeteering mud. It’s the little things, you see, that needed to be covered. A missing pole could well break the illusion of the stable it is supposed to represent, a missing mustering horse or its rider is only going to dent the impact of a cavalry charge and God forbid there should be no mud for the scene entitled ‘Gun in the mud’.

Cast changeover times are particularly gruelling with the week of extra daytime technical rehearsals each time to ease the new members into the fold and the current cast performing in the evening. Will shows us that even as an old hand you can’t take these sessions for granted – you’re passing on your knowledge, but also, new blood brings new ways of doing things.

Will writes with a great deal of self-deprecating humour, but he also conveys the passion and energy that this company had for their show,  the physical and mental demands required to bring the moving drama to life. As the centenary of the start of WWI passes, and later the death of Harry Patch, the ‘last Tommy’, there’s a occasional seriousness to things too that we can all recognise from the final moments of Black Adder Goes Forth. 

The text is further enlivened by a Foreword by Michael Morpurgo, and a host of backstage and rehearsal photographs by one of Will’s colleagues capture many informal moments – with one of Will in full attire as Captain Stewart looking towards us at the end.

Despite not having seen War Horse on stage, I hugely enjoyed reading this entertaining memoir of being part of such a wonderful production – it’s a shame I missed it.  If you saw the show I’m sure this book would resonate with you in a slightly different way. I loved Will’s descriptions of the actor’s craft and am in awe of their stamina and ability to astound an audience every night.

Source: Own copy

William Rycroft, All Quiet on the West End Front (Unbound, Sept 2018), paperback original, 256 pages.

13 thoughts on “War Horse – an actor’s story…

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    It hasn’t really closed, it was touring. And now it’s coming back to the National Theatre, so you might still get to see it. Very, very moving, my son and I loved it.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds fascinating, an exhausting but rewarding play to perform. Do you know why Will decided to give up acting, apart from having to learn all the parts and remaining on tenterhooks until 35 minutes before curtain-up?

  3. Jackie says:

    I didn’t know that Will had written a book, or his career changes since leaving War Horse, so thank you for filling me in! I was lucky enough to see War Horse – it was amazing ! I hope that you get to see it some time. Thanks for letting me know about this book. I hope to read it at some point!

  4. Calmgrove says:

    I did see this, in Cardiff, and sitting in the front row—scary when the ‘horses’ come galloping to the front of the stage and rear up! I’ve yet to see the film or even read the book, but this sounds sounds a must-read for me: I knew the production was complex but not quite this complex. Moving indeed, but it was the singing backstage when we were leaving the Millennium Centre that utterly creased us.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve heard the song ‘Only Remembered’ sung by John Tams (wonderful folkie – love his Home Service album) in the original. It must have been very moving.

  5. Elle says:

    Have you ever been on a backstage tour of the NT? They’ve got one of the horse puppets hanging up back there, and it’s incredible – it looks pretty convincing even when it’s not animated.

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