Before the beloved show War Horse comes to the Brighton Centre, its lead actor tells EDWIN GILSON why it means so much to audiences – and to him

IN THE weeks before he took up the coveted role of Albert in War Horse, Thomas Dennis went above and beyond the call of duty.

The self-proclaimed history buff took a trip to Northern France to visit the battlefields on which the real-life First World War conflicts recreated in the play were fought. What he found there moved him profoundly.

“I traced Albert’s footsteps on the Somme to get a feel for the place,” says Thomas. “Albert is in the Devonshire regiment so I found a cemetery for that regiment. In the play, we tell the story of Albert and his friend Private David Taylor going over the top [of the trenches] in battle.

“In the cemetery I visited, there was a gravestone for a private Taylor. Just talking to you now, that gives me goosebumps. We don’t know much about that person but he was a real person and we’re telling his story every night.”

Thomas’s extra-curricular work around his role in War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book of the same name, speaks volumes of his commitment to the cause. He talks passionately about the play and its importance in the documentation of such a pivotal time in world history.

“Whenever we do the show I always think it’s so much bigger than just that night,” he says. “We’re telling the stories of men who fought and died 100 years ago.”

In a sense, it is fitting that Brighton is the first city War Horse is visiting in the centenary year of the First World War’s ceasefire. After almost a decade of wild success – in which it played to seven million people and toured in China and North America – the show has had a break for the last few years. It’s back with an all-new cast and in a city whose most famous landmark, the Royal Pavilion, housed animals including horses during the war.

“It’s such an important year considering the subject matter of the play and we’re excited to start that journey in Brighton,” says Thomas. Another thing the lead actor and his cast members are psyched about is working in the Brighton Centre, which is not usually known for staging theatre. Rather than be daunted by that fact, Thomas and co have seen it as an opportunity to make the production even more immersive.

“It’s a big shift for us in terms of how we approach it, but it will give us a chance to bring the show to the audience more than we would usually do,” says Thomas.

As a horse rider himself, Thomas was able to use his personal experience to help inject realism into War Horse and its life-sized puppet Joey. Actors inside and outside the model operate it in a manner that make its movements almost indistinguishable to a real animal. Its ears flap, its hairs stand on end and occasionally it rears up and gallops.

“If we treated Joey like a piece of wood it would break the magic,” says Thomas. “We immerse ourselves in the reality of the play and can adapt on the spot. If I run a little quicker than before the people inside the horse would sense that and react to it.”

In the story, Albert and Joey are inseparable – until Joey is sent to join the war effort. During the course of the fighting the horse changes sides, allowing us intimate access to the British, German and French camps. What Thomas first loved about the book upon reading it as a child was the sense of neutrality offered by an animal protagonist.

“No judgement is passed on anything,” he says. “It’s just Joey seeing it and taking it all in. As an audience we don’t go, ‘the Germans started it, they’re the criminals’. It’s a very human way of telling the story – it focuses on humanity rather than who is right or wrong. It’s about looking at destruction and the way it tears families apart.”

Thomas’s enthusiasm when he talks about how children will learn from the play makes you think he could be a history teacher – albeit an unconventional one. While much of War Horse if fictional, it’s still a balanced account of the reality of mass conflict.

“Reading about the war on a page in a classroom at 3pm when you’ve got ten minutes until you go home is so far removed from the event,” says Thomas. “By bringing it alive in the theatre it’s much more powerful. They can start to understand it more and when they go back to their textbooks they will be more engaged with it.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that War Horse is one of the biggest shows to have ever come out of the UK.

While it is laden with meaning and emotion, however, I wonder if it can be a draining experience for the actors. Thomas admits it is a mentally and physically exhausting process but that he never loses sight of why he’s doing it.

“It’s not an easy job or an easy part to play,” he says. “But I have lots of books about the war and the Somme in my changing room to remind me what this is all about.” Rather than get overawed about the show to come, he adds, it’s better to focus on the moment ahead of you and go from there. “I try to think about the first step which is falling in love with the horse. When you get into the mindset of ‘oh my God, I have to do this show again today and I’m feeling knackered already’ it becomes harder.”

Besides, Thomas is no stranger to challenging jobs. Before this his most high-profile role was autistic teenager Christopher in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime at the National Theatre. Representing such a disorder on stage is obviously a sensitive matter, but Thomas navigated it in the same way he prepared for War Horse – copious research.

“Doing that was all about the amount I learnt about autism and seeing things differently,” he says. “In fact, I think I started to see things differently having done the show for so long.

“I can understand now that if anything it’s a gift. It’s not right or wrong – people with autism see things nobody else can see and that’s special. Christopher doesn’t let what some people would call a disability get in his way.” Towards the end of the run, Thomas felt he embodied Christopher so much that he begun to emulate some of his personality traits.

“I started getting frustrated with things that didn’t quite go to plan in the show. For example I would have to build a train-track and if it wasn’t precisely in a straight line it would start to annoy me like it would Christopher.”

He was gratified by autistic audience members approaching him after the show to say how much it struck a chord with them. “There’s no better feeling – you’re giving something back,” says Thomas.

The actor has taken a relatively unusual route to get to where he is today. He didn’t undertake a drama degree like most upcoming thespians, although he attends the odd acting class here and there. Instead, he honed his skills at the Edinburgh Fringe every year from the age of 15. “I’ve done it in different ways and worked incredibly hard,” says Thomas.

Whatever his path up to now, it’s difficult to think of a more well-suited man than Thomas to play the lead role in War Horse. He is, after all, a horse-riding history fanatic. As he saddles up for the two-week run at the Brighton Centre, he speaks like a man ready to seize his moment.

“It’s such an honour to be part of this and I can’t wait.”

War Horse

Brighton Centre, Thursday to February 10

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