In this prom, the commemoration of the First World War continued, marking a century after it began on 3 August 1914. Inspired by the National Theatre's play, which is based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, the evening was entitled War Horse Prom. Accordingly, the BBC Concert Orchestra, under the baton of David Charles Abell, was joined on stage by the National Theatre Ensemble and, longingly expected by many in the audience, some of the War Horse puppets. Together, they explored the war and the music that was written in its course, including the New War Hymn by Proms founder and conductor Sir Henry Wood, which was especially re-created for this performance.

Shoulder to shoulder with the audience - Joey's first appearance © Chris Christodoulou
Shoulder to shoulder with the audience - Joey's first appearance
© Chris Christodoulou

As the lights were dimmed, we curiously watched the stage. It is summer, young and old enjoy the sun at the beach in a relaxed, frolicsome atmosphere. A hand-held camera brings out small, personal details in a vintage look, which are projected on several big screens above the stage. Frank Bridge's Summer captured the season's atmosphere with easy, drifting sounds, but the happy and careless spirit soon tipped with the first trumpet calls in the distance. Before long, those gentle murmurs of danger have turned into reality, men of all ages are dragged from their homes, many of them never to return. Three part-songs by Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, touchingly sung by the Proms Military Wives Choir, moved the focus on to the outer and inner cold of a snowy winter, showing a nation scarred by battle in which women were left to carry on without their husbands, sons and fathers – a land without men.

War Horse on a different mission: treats from the conductor © Chris Christodoulou
War Horse on a different mission: treats from the conductor
© Chris Christodoulou
A little story within the story, Adrian Sutton's War Horse Suite, created from his original music to the play, is a very compact account of the relationship between Albert and his horse Joey, from the very beginning on to the subsequent recruiting of horses and easily excitable young men for the war, the war itself and the final coming home of the surviving soldiers and their four legged companions. For this, the play's life-size puppets appeared on stage to great effect. For somebody like me who had only seen them on television, it was fascinating to see the attention to detail the company has put into the design of the puppets and their actual movements, which make Joey walk, hop and twitch his ears like a real horse. He even displayed some good-natured mischief, nudging David Charles Abell mid-conducting, searching his jacket pockets for something to eat, only backing off when the conductor produced several treats with his more-or-less free hand. This not only elicited sympathetic laughter from the audience, but also lifted the mood which might otherwise quickly have slipped into a darker shade.

The show, however, did not focus on events in the UK exclusively. After the suite, an international route was taken which first lead to Turkey with Çanakkale içinde (In Çanakkale), a song written by local bard Ihsan Ozanoğlu in 1915 to describe the anguish and lament of the soldiers, and as a reminder of the horrors of war.

Into the war - Joey and members of the National Theatre's ensemble © Chris Christodoulou
Into the war - Joey and members of the National Theatre's ensemble
© Chris Christodoulou
The journey then moved on to France with excerpts from Maurice Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, both a neo-Baroque homage to the earlier composer and an elegy for friends lost in the war. For the latter, the piece appears surprisingly light and positive with its lively rhythms and bright musical colours – a fact for which it has been criticised, but Ravel explained that “the dead are sad enough in their eternal silence”.

With this already in mind and ear, three songs by Danish-German composer Paul von Klenau seemed a little out of place, despite a solid performance from baritone Duncan Rock. The specially commissioned Some See Us by Adrian Sutton finally brought a more hopeful voice. An imagined response to the irony of the war's frequent description of the “war to end all wars”, Sutton chose a choir of 14-18 year-old boys to symbolise both the whole generation of youths sent into the trenches and the generations to come. The Cambiata North West gave a powerful performance, reminding us that it is in each and every one of us to make peace with ourselves and others, and to create a better future.

Henry Wood's "New War Hymn": Gareth Malone conducting the audience, and the Cambiata North West © Chris Christodoulou
Henry Wood's "New War Hymn": Gareth Malone conducting the audience, and the Cambiata North West
© Chris Christodoulou
Framed by its anthem Only Remembered, a song originally set to music by American gospel singer and composer Ira D. Sankey, now arrangenged by musician and actor John Tams and beautifully simply sung by Tim van Eyken, it was a glorious show. Despite the dark topic, it was a very enjoyable and entertaining afternoon. The little fragments filmed live on stage, as well as impressions of war times in the shape of photos of soldiers and all kinds of animals projected onto the big stage screens, and the National Theatre's ensemble always provided something interesting to watch, particularly for the younger listeners. Youngsters and grow-ups alike were fascinated by the life-like puppets that illustrated the events of the war.

The excited audience would not let the performers leave without an encore, for which they chose the music hall favourite It's a long way to Tipperary and encouraged extensive audience participation. After singing along happily, the listeners again paid frenetic applause to a phenomenal cast that gave a stunning performance, leading Military Wives Choir conductor Gareth Malone to an act of rock star glamour in which he threw his banjo picks into the audience. For me, and most certainly for many others, this was a performance that we will remember for a long time.

*****