For years, audiences flocking to see War Horse in the West End have been thrilled by the music played live by a five-piece band as much as by its breathtaking puppets.
Yet following the redundancy of the War Horse band in March, its producers now have a new plan: to replace them with actors miming their parts on musical instruments.
The move by the National Theatre, which remains in charge of the transferred show, has been branded “laughable” by the union representing professional musicians, prompted boycotts from angry audience members and raised concerns within the company itself.
Horace Trubridge, assistant general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “Their artistic team believe it’s preferable to have actors miming and pretending to play music than have actual musicians. I was gobsmacked.”
The theatre had planned to start rehearsals for the “fake band” actors last week, but it has been put on ice after cast members feared the new additions had not rehearsed for long enough.
Mr Trubridge said the theatre had initially talked about removing the live band “for artistic reasons” but subsequently suggested it cost too much money. The musicians vow to fight to be restored to the show and are heading for the courts later this year.
The spat comes ahead of a special War Horse Prom at this year’s BBC Proms ,which provoked shock within the union at its timing.
War Horse, adapted from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, proved an unexpected smash when it debuted at the National Theatre in 2007. The story of a Devon lad and his horse whose lives are torn apart by the First World War transferred to the New London Theatre two years later, followed by tours around the world.
The National said live music “continued to play an integral role” in War Horse but added that the London production was an “anomaly” as no others had the live band.
Despite the huge success of the West End production, which is still selling out, the battle between the National and its live musicians has been simmering since last year.
The National tried to cancel the contracts of five musicians, known as the War Horse band, in 2013 but failed when the issue was taken to a conciliation board made up of members of the Musicians’ Union and the Society of London Theatre. Their playing time was reduced to two and a half minutes.
The producers then removed the band in March and replaced them with a recording without the union’s consent. Neyire Ashworth, Andrew Callard, Jonathan Eddie, David Holt and Colin Rae have been playing live at the show since it transferred to the West End venue.
The musicians say that, according to their contracts, they cannot be fired until the show finishes and are now pursuing a claim for breach of contract, which will be heard at the High Court at the end of the summer. They failed in April with an interim injunction that would have kept them on the stage. They hope that the court will compel the National to rehire the musicians.