National Theatre Causes Stir With Musicians' Union for Preparing "Fake Band" at War Horse

By Michael Gioia
and Mark Shenton
22 May 2014

Following the National Theatre's decision to axe five musicians who were made redundant from the West End production of War Horse — currently running at the New London Theatre — the company plans to enlist actors to mime the musicians' parts.



According to U.K. publication The Stage, the company planned to rehearse the "fake band" (as they are being referred to by members of the War Horse company) at the end of last week — performers would learn to pretend to play instruments over recorded music in a scene that was previously played live onstage by a five-piece band.

However, following concerns raised by other cast members over the length of the rehearsal period, rehearsals have reportedly been stalled. Additionally, the Musicians' Union responded to the new initiative, labeling it "desperately unfair."

"It is insulting to the history of musical theatre to suggest an audience would prefer to see actors pretending to play musical instruments than live musicians. I can't imagine anyone wouldn't agree with that. This is a concept that is totally alien to me and anybody who has any interest in musical theatre at all," MU assistant general secretary Horace Trubridge told The Stage.

As previously reported, the five – Neyire Ashworth, Andrew Callard, Jonathan Eddie, David Holt and Colin Rae – lost their court bid to be reinstated. They had held their jobs from March 2009-March 2013, when they were replaced by a pre-recorded soundtrack.

A spokesperson for the National Theatre previously told Playbill.com, "The vast majority of the instrumental music in the show has, from the start, been on tape (wholly so in the case of the seven productions that have followed on from the London production, including on Broadway), and the musicians in London have always played on top of the recorded music.  And of course there are lots of songs in the play, led by the Songperson who plays and sings live, as do the cast of 38 actors in the choral numbers. It remains a very musical production."

In a statement to the court  — where the five musicians challenged the decision to replace them and sought reinstatement pending a full trial — the National's executive director Nick Starr said, "The National Theatre's artistic judgement, made by those with the expertise to assess such matters, is that a live band does not provide the same quality and impact of performance as can be produced through the use of recorded music and professional actors."

War Horse transferred to the New London Theatre March 28, 2009, prior to an official opening April 3, where it has continued to run ever since.

The production, which is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and presented in association with Handspring Puppet Company, won the 2007 Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Laurence Olivier Awards for the set design by Rae Smith and Handspring Puppet Company; Toby Sedgwick received an Olivier Award for his choreography.

The story concerns Joey, young Albert's beloved horse, who is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France at the outbreak of the First World War. He's soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man's land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

To book tickets, contact the National Theatre box office at 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/warhorse.