Amy Moore speaks exclusively to Emma Thornett, one of the leading puppeteers who plays Baby Joey in War Horse at the New London Theatre. 

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Emma Thornett.

HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN PUPPETEERING?

I hadn’t done any puppeteering before I went for the War Horse audition, so I was a bit apprehensive about whether I’d actually be able to do it. I had grown up with horses, and I think it was lucky that my first puppeteering experience was to puppeteer a horse. I knew a little bit about how horses move and think. The puppets that we use are so beautifully made, and the foal puppet that I first picked up had been used quite a lot. It had this lovely, malleable feel to it. Puppetry is such a wonderful skill that I feel I’ve learnt from the show. You’re constantly refining, especially within the section that I do – it’s about the foal learning and seeing things for the very first time. It’s really exciting to be able to portray that emotion through the puppet.

COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THAT SCENE?

Puppeteers swap parts every show, which is nice because it keeps the performance fresh. Every time you’re changing position and changing combination with other puppeteers, it feels like a slightly different character is brought out of him. We meet Joey when he is very young – about three or four months old. He meets Albert – the young boy – who grows with him.

Joey especially learns about humans through Albert. It’s a really lovely sequence. When I first saw the show, it was a moment that overwhelmed me; with the massive swelling of music and the sequence building, when suddenly this enormous, majestic puppet comes bursting through.

IS THE PUPPET DIFFICULT TO MANOEUVRE?

We’re now using a new puppet and when we first picked him up, he was a lot less malleable because the leather hadn’t been worked and the wood hadn’t had five years of use. It did take quite a lot of getting used to. The important thing to consider when we’re puppeteering is to put the breath into the animal. It’s very difficult for a puppet to come to life on stage without breath. The way we use breath is through the cage of the puppet, with the body resting on the wrists. The eyes are beautifully made. They’re made of frosted glass, which somehow manages to capture the light and completely brings the puppet to life. The important thing is to remember that horses have 360 vision. If someone is walking behind Baby Joey, we can show that he knows they’re there by slightly turning the ear. It’s those tiny, micro movements that really draw the audience in.

HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE TO PERFORM BABY JOEY?

You have the head, the heart and the hind. The heart puppeteer has to put their arms through the body, whilst they hold the legs with their hands. The cage then rests on the wrists. The heart puppeteer position is quite strenuous, because Baby Joey is that much smaller and you’re in a very bent down position. There’s a lot of fitness to make sure we have the core strength to deal with that. The hind puppeteer is outside the cage and holding the legs onto the body. His task is to make sure the gate of the horse is in the right mode. This is something we learn very early on. It’s his job to make sure all the rhythms are right for the walks, the trots and the gallop.

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Puppeteers swap parts every show, which helps to keep performances fresh. Emma Thornett describes the full sized puppet as ‘majestic’

Baby Joey spends quite a lot of time in a heightened state of anxiety. We will indicate that through the breath. The breath doesn’t just keep the puppet alive, it is also a really valuable tool for us as puppeteers to know where Baby Joey’s mind is – what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling.

There’s a line in the book: “I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life.” It’s a massive challenge to work so closely with two other people and when we’re breathing together, it helps to keep us together.

HOW DO YOU KEEP PERFORMANCES FRESH?

There are certain bits that aren’t set. For example in the auction scene, we’re walking, running and galloping around the stage, and it’s completely improvised. For three people to be able to improvise together is a massive achievement.

WAR HORSE London Cast 2014

Puppeteering plays a prominent part in the production of War Horse, with actors working to put ‘breath’ into the animal.

WERE YOU FAMILIAR WITH THE NOVEL BEFORE YOU ACCEPTED THE ROLE?

I actually saw the play first – it’s been running for about six years – and I was blown away by it. I’ve had the privilege of meeting the author, Michael Morpurgo. He’s such a wonderful and warm man that you can feel his personality come through in this writing. He’s really supportive.

DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER THEATRE EXPERIENCE?

Blood Brothers in the West End for 18 months, and I’ve done quite a lot of national tours across the country. I have done a few musicals, but I was really keen on doing some straight theatre. Although I do love singing, I’m really pleased to perform in a show where I can exercise my acting abilities.

FINALLY, WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT FROM THE SHOW?

The audience can expect a very heart warming, human story, told from all sides. They can also can expect a very unbiased view of the war, and maybe a few tears. I’m just so proud to be a part of it.

Emma Thornett trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama. Theatre credits include the title roles in Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, Robin Hood at Cardiff New Theatre, 101 Dalmatians at Northampton Theatre Royal, Around the World in 80 Days at the Liverpool Playhouse and Blood Brothers in the West End. Television credits include Toy Soldiers, Double Take and Extras

War Horse will be performed at the New London Theatre until October 2015. Tickets are available from www.warhorseonstage.com