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'War Horse' scene reminds Toronto star of his great-grandfather's war ordeal

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TORONTO - There's a pivotal scene in the play "War Horse" that hits close to home for Alex Furber, star of the highly anticipated Toronto production that opens Tuesday at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

It's when Furber's character Albert, a British soldier during the First World War, is nearly blinded in a gas attack in the trenches.

Furber says his great-grandfather, who was a member of the Canadian cavalry at the time, was also injured in a gas attack in the battlefield.

"He met my great-grandmother, who was a nurse, in Toronto after the war, but he actually died a couple of years later from complications from the gas," Furber, 25, said in an interview during the play's preview run that began Feb. 10.

"It's just amazing to read up and to remember the sacrifice that all these people made."

A Toronto native with boyish good looks, Furber said he heard stories about his ancestor's harrowing ordeal from his grandfather, who was in the navy during the Second World War.

"It makes me very proud but it lets me know how important this story (in 'War Horse') is to be told.... All of my friends have a grandfather or a great-grandfather who were in the wars, and I think this story is so personal to all of us," said Furber.

"It's a wonderful story that we can identify very strongly with."

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford, the play "War Horse" follows Albert and his beloved half-thoroughbred, Joey, as they're separated in the English countryside and travel down different dangerous paths during the Great War.

The Mirvish Productions version marks the Canadian premiere of the stage show, which has been a hit in London and on Broadway, where it's won five Tonys, including best play.

"I think that's what the most beautiful thing in this story is ... is you see the atrocities of war and how horrible it is and in the middle of it is just two people who have this completely symbiotic bond and them just searching for each other and trying to find each other again," said Furber.

"It's really beautiful."

Furber uses the term "two people" to describe Joey and Albert because, like every "War Horse" cast member, he views the awe-inspiring puppets that depict the animals as being real and having distinct personalities.

And it's not difficult for him to feel that way. After all, the puppeteers who operate the life-sized creations make them move, sound and look like the real thing.

"That's also what this story is about, is the kinship between humans and animals," said Furber. "Joey and Albert, they're best friends."

A recent graduate of the National Theatre School, Furber has acted in Shakespeare plays around Toronto but has never been in anything on this scale.

"This is the biggest show that I've ever done and it's actually been amazing just how smooth everything has gone so far," he said.

To prepare for the role, Furber went horseback riding with his family and saw the "War Horse" production in New York.

He said the cast has been very supportive and offered him a lot of wisdom.

British director Alex Sims has paid particular attention to helping Furber find "the absolute joy with the horse and love for the horse," he added.

"When we're playing together and growing up together and getting to know each other, it's just really the best time of Albert's life, and so when he's taken away from him it's so devastating," said Furber.

"Obviously the more that I love the horse the more the audience can see that and get into the story, and they love the horse just as much and it's just heartbreaking for them when the horse is taken away."

"War Horse" runs here with an all-Canadian cast at the same time that Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film adaptation of the story is in theatres. Furber said he has no concerns that movie-goers will compare his performance with that of the actor who plays Albert in the big-screen version.

"The book is very different from the film, which is very different from the play, and I'm just very happy that this story is getting out there in different ways," said Furber, who has two younger sisters.

"But even from other productions, the London and the New York, the director and the creative team has made sure that we're really finding this story for ourselves, for the Canadian version, for the very first time.

"We've really found something new and so that makes it exciting for me."

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