War Horse, like most London theatre, has spectacle as its main attraction – but it’s a much bolder spectacle that the usual West End offerings.
For once, I’m not going to give a critical run-through of War Horse – it’s already got overwhelming praise from, well, pretty much everybody who’s ever seen it, so I doubt my verdict will make any difference one way or the other. Instead, I’m going to ask a tougher question: does this justify the large public subsidy that the Royal National Theatre gets? Because although the Sunderland Empire calls itself “The West End of the North East”, the National isn’t a West End Theatre, and it’s not just because of its location – the difference is that all the West End Theatres are entirely commercially self-funding. The National justifies its public funding on the grounds that it can take risks. That’s quite an easy claim to make – it’s not hard to be more adventurous than the formulaic shows that make up much of the West End – but you also to show something for it. Yes, you can have the odd dud every now and then, the gambles that didn’t work out, but you need to prove yourself with the risks that paid off. Step forward Exhibit A, War Horse.
When you’re the flagship show of the flagship venture of subsidised theatre, there’s two things you need to prove yourself. Firstly, you need to be popular with the public – there’s no doubt War Horse has achieved this, if the near sell-out at the Sunderland Empire is anything to go by. But the second challenge is harder: you need to offer something extra, over and above what the West End gives us. That, I felt, was where One Man Two Guvnors was weak. What are paying our taxes for? What does the National give us that the self-funding West End doesn’t?