War Horse is a moving story transcending global conflict
Lynne Brighouse talks to musician John Tams about his involvement with War Horse ahead of a reading at Derby Assembly Rooms.
DESPITE travelling all over the world recently following the huge success of the stage play War Horse, local musician, writer and actor John Tams says he will always live in his home county of Derbyshire.
"I love Derbyshire and I love the nature of the people who live in it," he says.
"The community spirit here is very strong. The people are generous, committed and loyal to each other."
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John attributes these traits to a common industrial history and the legacy of the mining communities which were part of the landscape here for decades.
"Derbyshire folk tend to run very deep and dark", he says. "They can be very modest and understated, avoiding the spotlight but there is a lot is going on underneath, deep thoughts."
In many ways, it feels like John is also describing himself.
Despite his rise to gradual prominence and an obvious abundance of creative talent, he remains very personable, modest, generous with his time and understated.
His recent success has been preceded by a lifetime of energetic investment in creative outlets, such as folk music, writing and drama. He has always felt driven to express the things he feels passionate about, life, love and social injustice and finding several voices with which to do it, starting his route from a young age.
On leaving school aged 15, John soon realised that there was no future in following the generations before him down the pit.
"The mines were all closing down around Somercotes and Alfreton area where I went to school and so I decided to work on fairgrounds for a while, which I really enjoyed," he says.
"I was attracted by the sense of drama which fairgrounds bring with them, they mushroom out of nowhere, offer a really dramatic show, full of noise, music and great smells and then they disappear again."
This love of drama and performance signposted the direction John would pursue. He had been working at the National Theatre in London for around 40 years when the idea for War Horse first began to germinate around seven years ago.
"Although Michael Morpurgo's children's book had been around for about 30 years it had stayed under the radar and not sold particularly well," says John.
"By chance, it was being read by the mother of the then director of the National Theatre, Tom Morris, just at a time when he was looking for interesting ideas for a new stage play.
"He liked the sound of it and I was called in with several others to see if we could all make it work.
"The book then went into a workshop process. We improvised with certain scenes from the novel, starting with scene in which Joey the horse gets caught on the barbed wire and both a German and English soldier communicate to set him free."
The play gradually developed in this way, successfully melding into a very poignant and moving production for which John was also asked to write the music.
"It was a real team effort," says John. "We knew War Horse had some interesting qualities but when the life- size horse puppet arrived in the theatre I knew that the play would be a winner. It was designed by South African puppet makers and it was so beautiful and impressive."
From that point onwards the momentum of War Horse has never really stopped, with sell-out theatre shows, a Stephen Spielberg's film version, a radio adaptation and now a touring show of the reading of the novel by the author himself – musically accompanied by John and Barry Coope. It has also been translated into 26 different languages and there is even a War Horse phone app.
John says he can also feel the vibrations building up for next year which is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War – the horrors of which are subtly portrayed through the eyes of the Joey, the horse.
He puts the success and appeal of the War Horse down to its simplicity.
"It is the tale of two plough boys, a horse and a war," he says. "This war was an event which blew away an entire generation from Britain and from Germany but the horse doesn't have the human frailty of taking sides, it is just caught up in it. Horses are also an iconic symbol on a global level. Most nationalities love horses. They are beautiful creatures and deeply cared for through time."
John believes that the reading, which will visit Derby Assembly Rooms on March 17, will also be very appealing in its simplicity.
The evening will consist of Michael reading the adaptation of the book, penned by John and his wife, Sarah, enhanced by music from the stage play, played by John and Barry.
"Everyone loves having a story read to them," says John, "and Michael is a great performer and storyteller. He tends to mesmerise the audience, both young and old. This reading honours the book more closely than the stage play which is more theatrical and is really a companion to it.
"The show lasts for 80 minutes without an interval, though the reading is interspersed with music at various different points and is likely to appeal to all ages from eight upwards," says John.
WHAT: War Horse
WHERE: Derby Assembly Rooms
WHEN: March 17, 6pm
ADMISSION: £17, under 16s £8
TICKETS: Call 01332 255800 or visit www.derbylive.co.uk