THERE’S standing room only as the international hit play War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel, brings life-sized puppet horses to vivid life on stage in Southampton from next week.

It’s the powerful story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been requisitioned to fight for the British in the First World War.

Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.

A remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, War Horse features groundbreaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage.

Speaking of his inspiration for the book, which spawned the play and Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award winning film, Michael Morpurgo told Lorelei Reddin: “I was born in 1943 and grew up very war-conscious. If you grow up with bomb sites all around you, and with adults who have lived through the trauma of six years of war, what you feel is a sense of grief and ruin all around you.

My heroes were not footballers or people who were famous, they were Spitfire pilots. I had an uncle who was killed in the war and there was this sense of loss and I knew that war had done that.

“I wanted to go back into a history that I didn’t really know but that I had felt as I was growing up.

“Something that an old gentleman in my village told me, that touched me enormously, was that his best friend while on the front line was his horse. He told me the horse listened and I believed him.”

That was confirmed a few days later at the Devon charity farm Michael runs with his wife Clare, Farms for City Children.

“There was this little boy called Billy who didn’t talk, but I went into the yard one night and found him talking to a horse.

That led to a call from the author to London’s Imperial War Museum, discovering that around a million horses went to the First World War – and only 65,000 returned, almost exactly the same number of men who died in the conflict.

“I thought they shared this thing, together. There’s an extraordinary story here. No one seemed to have told the story from a neutral position so I thought the horse could tell the story.

“I must say I don’t know another play which has transformed puppetry and theatre so radically. The innovation is quite extraordinary and it has transformed what is after all a children’s book into a story for everyone.”

  • War Horse is at The Mayflower Theatre from Wednesday to Saturday, March 15. Very limited tickets remain.