Monday, 18 May 2015

Interview: James Backway, starring as Albert Narracott in War Horse

James Backway is currently making his West End debut as Albert Narracott in War Horse at the New London Theatre.

James’ previous work includes playing Kyle in Humans (Channel 4) and Jay in New Views (National Theatre).

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s novel, War Horse is now in its eighth year in London. The show, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2007 before transferring to the West End in 2009, is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

I recently spoke to James about why he never thought he would star in War Horse, what makes the show so accessible and what it’s like to work with such mesmerising puppetry… 

How familiar were you with War Horse before being cast in the show?
I’d seen it a few times. I was a big fan of the book and read it quite a few times as a child. Then I saw it when it first opened at the Olivier and then again when it transferred here. I actually also saw it a couple of weeks before I got the audition, I’m just a huge, huge fan of the show! I consider myself very lucky to now be a part of it.

Before the audition came up was it a role you knew you wanted to play?
Normally you watch a play and think ‘that might be a nice one for me, I could use that in an audition’ but with something like War Horse you watch it and know you can’t just put on your own little version somewhere. I thought War Horse would just run and run in London so I would never get to do it, I never made the assumption that I could be in the West End production! I’m more used to looking at parts and thinking ‘I could do a small version of that down at my village hall or at a small theatre up north’. To now be a part of the massive stage show is a dream come true – it never even went through my brain as a realistic concept!

What is War Horse’s secret? Why do audiences keep coming back?
I think the remembrance for all the people in the Great War is something which lives with us. Every year when Remembrance Day comes around I feel like there’s always a fresh head on everyone thinking about and remembering those people. I think the amazing thing about this show is that it’s so accessible to so many people. The older generation may have parents who fought in this war and then children love the aspect of the horses and the emotional connection we all have with animals. The best thing about the show is that it tells the story through the eyes of an animal that’s completely vulnerable and has no choice about going to war. There’s empathy towards the way we look at war and what we’ve learnt from war.

James with Joey in War Horse

And then there’s the whole spectacle of it!
Yes, there are amazing puppetry skills from everyone in the show. I think it’s second to none, even on a global scale. It’s mesmerising what the puppeteers do. There’s a very strong message behind this show which resonates with everyone on such a strong level.

It’s a very creative show and it takes risks, it’s not every day you go to the theatre and see world class puppetry like this!
Definitely, it’s very unconventional. In the West End at the moment there’s a huge surge of revival shows and shows that follow traditions, but when War Horse came out it broke down so many walls and reinvented what can be put on a West End stage. There are a lot of big musicals and big Shakespeare plays and successful contemporary plays, but this is a show about puppetry and horses and it was a ground-breaker at the time and it still resonates. I’m in awe of the puppeteers; they’re superhuman [laughs]. 

How did you find working with the puppeteers at the beginning? 
It was good because at the start of rehearsals we were all introduced to each other and then the horse puppeteers went away for about two weeks and they learnt how to be horses on this boot camp. By the time I joined up with them they were already in this really good, strong place and were nitpicking what they needed to do. It’s such a specific process because they make these horses so lifelike. It was great! They are constantly communicating and working as a team to bring the horse to life. Working with them has been really creative, it’s a welcoming environment. 

James in War Horse
How did you feel going into rehearsals? Were you able to put your own stamp on Albert?
The rehearsal process was really fun. Unlike some shows, the director of War Horse and the team are very keen on new ideas and keeping everything fresh whilst honouring what people love about the show – you don’t want to completely change it. The best part about it was you could pitch new ideas, try new things and be different to the previous cast – as long as you honoured what the show is about and what makes it so good. Each time I’ve seen it over the past nine years the show has changed drastically, so even if you did see War Horse five or six years ago if you came to see it now you would be like ‘oh that’s changed, and that’s different!’ It’s a constantly developing show, nobody is stuck in their ways and everybody is learning from each other. It makes it much more fun!

It’s such a demanding role to play each night, how do you feel when you come off after a performance?
I always have a good cup of tea [laughs]. At the weekends we always make a point of having a social atmosphere so we’ll all go for a drink which is nice because we all can blow off steam. I can’t go to sleep straight after the show, you can’t just collapse. You need to do something like walk or go for a run… or watch a bit of Game of Thrones or something [laughs]. My brain is always still running at about five hundred miles per hour which is crazy!

What’s the atmosphere like backstage?
It’s really fun [laughs], there’s a lot of us! There’s forty of us! It’s kind of like being back at school again, you’re introduced to forty new people and then try to get used to everyone. Learning everyone’s names took a good week or two [laughs]. Now we’re just like one great big family, everyone is so lovely. We’re really blessed with this cast!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

War Horse is booking at the New London Theatre until 13th February 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets. 

Photo Credit 2-3: Brinkhoff Mögenburg 

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