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Shropshire's key role in worldwide War Horse production - with video

By Sue Austin | Ellesmere | Theatre & Comedy | Published: | Last Updated:

The stage version of War Horse has been seen by 11 million people across the world, one of the most successful theatre productions of all time.

One of the countryside scenes created by Rae Smith for the stage backdrops in the theatre production of War Horse

The backdrop to the remarkable puppet horses are said to be drawings from Captain Nicholls’ sketchbook in Michael Morpurgo’s bestseller about the First World War.

However they are in fact sketches of parts of Shropshire, captured by theatre designer Rae Smith, one of the set designers for the production.

Rae Smith's War Horse designs:

Shropshire's role in War Horse production

They are currently on display at Ellesmere College as part of its annual art exhibition.

Rae grew up in the Ellesmere area and, when she was asked to go out and sketch scenes as Captain Nicholls did, she knew exactly where to go.

WATCH: How War Horse set is designed

Making War Horse - Design

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The town where the horses are brought having to be sequestered by the army is Ellesmere, while the farm where hero Joey the horse and his young owner, Albert Narracott, live is her own parents’ smallholding in nearby Welshampton.

Rae Smith with one of her War Horse pieces

Stables, heavy horses and a plough were drawn at the Park Hall Countryside Attraction and even the battlefields of France are taken from Rae’s childhood memories of cold, wet and windy days in the county.

The pictures she drew sitting in the home the family still has in Ellesmere became the 25 metre high scenes, looking like pages torn from the sketch pad, that have graced stages from the West End to Broadway and are currently touring the Far East.

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She said she was proud that Ellesmere had played such a large part in War Horse.

Ellesmere's TSB building

She first drew them about eight years ago when she was given just two weeks to immerse herself as a method artist to create Captain Nicholls’ sketchbook.

“The young captain, an amateur artist, captured the rural idyll of the English countryside in 1914, the passageway across the Channel and his arrival in France,” she said.

“Michael Morpurgo set his book in Devon but, with just two weeks I had to draw what I knew.

The army arrives
The 360 degree sketch

“When you draw what is personal to you, you can imagine the scene as it would have been in history and I set the signing up of both the young lads and the horses in the army at The Cross in Ellesmere.

“The Narracott’s farm is my parent’s own smallholding in Welshampton.

"There is a scene were Albert is viewed through a window at night and I can always picture my own mother at that window. When that part of the play unfolds I always think of her.”

War horse on stage

Rae said she always loved the countryside but said the wet muddy ploughed fields for some reason always scared her as a child.

“Open, muddy fields can be quite fearsome in bad weather and I used that memory to draw the battlefields of Northern France, all churned up with explosions going off all around the soldiers and horses.

“Over the years, as the show has developed, we developed the drawings, went onto animate some of them and when we had a revolving stage, created a 360 degree sketch.”

Headmaster of Ellesmere College, Brendan Wignall with Rae Smith

She said she hoped that the sketches would inspire the students at Ellesmere College.

“When you are a teenager your home town or the countryside can seem a bit boring and you might leave for pastures new. We know we can always come back. But the young men who enlisted for the war did not have a chance.”

The sketches for War Horse can be seen at the exhibition at Ellesmere College, which is open to the public this weekend, from 11am until 9pm Saturday and 11am until 2pm on Sunday.

Sue Austin

By Sue Austin
Chief Reporter

Chief reporter of the Oswestry/Mid Wales office. Keen to hear your news.

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