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War Horse in Bradford is a family affair for cast members

War Horse is due to start a month-long run at the Alhambra tonight.

The lavish production follows a farm horse called Joey who is sold to the Army, sent to the battlefields of France during the First World War, caught in crossfire, used by Germans to pull ambulance carts and tangled up in barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It also follows the emotional journey of Devon farm boy Albert Narracott to be reunited with his beloved animal.

Originally a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play has been seen by more than seven million people across the world and reached the silver screen in 2011 in a Hollywood film by Steven Spielberg and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch.

In Bradford, the Alhambra audience will be dazzled by the stage version, most notably Joey.

The elaborate burnt-orange-coloured horse puppet is controlled by three trained puppeteers, who work the lifesize animal at its “head, heart and hind”, according to puppetry director Matthew Forbes.

The cast are looking forward to bringing the poignant story to life, as part of its sold-out tour of the UK and Ireland, which marks the centenary of the end of the First World War.

William Ilkley, 59, who plays Arthur Narracott, Albert’s dad, in the production which runs until March 10, is coming home to the district. He was born in Ilkley and attended Ilkley Grammar School.

He changed his stage surname to the town he was born in when attending drama school in London in 1980, as his original surname – Brown – was already taken.

Despite living in East Yorkshire, Mr Ilkley is a lifelong Bradford City fan and still goes to matches when he can.

He said: “I have been here three times in three years now and have been in seven different productions at the Alhambra over the years. I have seen all of the changes over the last few years too.

“Bradford audiences are great, but it’s so intimate and you don’t feel like you are playing to that many people.

“There is something about a West Yorkshire audience that is so warm and responsive.

“The audience here will rise to their feet, there is no other piece of theatre like War Horse. There are incredible puppets. It is bringing theatre to the next level.

“I have stayed in Yorkshire all of my life. Whenever I can I like to go and watch Bradford City and watch them with my school friends.”

Mr Ilkley said a number of his family and friends from the Bradford district would be coming to watch him on stage at the Alhambra.

It is also a family affair for fellow cast member Thomas Dennis, 21, who plays Albert Narracott.

He will become the third generation of his family to star on the Alhambra stage. He will follow in the footsteps of his great-grandmother, Barbara Ashley, who performed with the Sherman Dancers in 1927 and his great-uncle, Ronnie Plummer, who performed there as a saxophonist in 1952.

Mr Dennis also spoke of his pride at joining his fellow family members and the importance of the Bradford Pals to the production.

He said: “It’s a beautiful theatre, it feels so intimate.

“The element of the show that will ring true about Bradford will be the First World War. People of Bradford will think about the Bradford Pals.

“I am looking forward to paying my respects to the Bradford Pals at the memorials to them.”

The Alhambra is the only Yorkshire venue on the current tour of the production.

Puppetry director Mr Forbes spoke about the play providing a dramatic subject for the stage.

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He added: “The show is something that is really transferable from film to stage, it is epic. There is something almost film-like about the show.

“It is great to see a horse come to life. We all know it’s a puppet, but when it’s on stage, you believe it’s real. The show appeals to everyone.

“You get a real emotional response from the audience. It really affects people.

“The audience believes in the horse so much.”

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