WHEN Thomas Dennis visited a small war cemetery outside a village in northern France, he came face to face with a name he knew well.

Thomas travelled to the Somme Valley, site of the First World War’s bloodiest battle, to find the place where men from the Devonshire Regiment lay buried. As the star of War Horse, the powerful play about a farm horse sent to the battlefields of France, Thomas already felt a connection with the regiment. These were soldiers his character Albert Narracott - a Devon farm boy who follows his beloved horse, Joey, to France - would have fought alongside.

“I visited a cemetery with 150 war graves bearing the names of men from the Devonshire Regiment, all killed on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme,” says Thomas. “In the play, Albert’s friend, Private David Taylor, is killed going over the top. In that little hidden cemetery, we found the grave of a Private Taylor. Every time I’m on stage I think of him.”

War Horse gallops into Bradford next week for a month-long run at the Alhambra; the only Yorkshire venue on its 10th anniversary UK tour. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling children’s book, it’s the most successful play in the National Theatre’s history, completing a record-breaking eight-year London run in March, 2016. Seen by more than seven million people worldwide, it has won 25 awards including the Tony for Best Play on Broadway. In 2013 it was made into a film by Steven Spielberg.

Returning to the Alhambra following a sell-out run in 2014, the show’s current tour marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. The story of Joey; sold to the Army, shipped to France, caught in crossfire, used by Germans to pull ambulance carts then entangled in barbed wire in No Man’s Land, highlights the role of horses in war. When War Horse came to Bradford in 2014, Michael Morpurgo told the T&A he’d learned of the horses’ plight chatting in a pub to an old man who had served in the 1914-18 war. “I told him I’d seen an old painting of the British cavalry charging uphill towards the German position, horses caught in barbed wire. His eyes filled with tears as he said he was there with horses, too. He talked of the horse he’d loved and left behind, how it was sold to French butchers for meat. Almost as many horses as men died, and they died in the same way - on the wire, in the mud, machine-gunned, from poisonous gas, exhaustion.”

He added: “War Horse has huge integrity. It isn’t sentimental, it hurts. It’s the experience of war from a horse’s point of view.”

Aged 21, Thomas is the age of many men who went to the trenches and never came home. The production, he says, is particularly poignant in 2018. “The centenary is a special time to tour this play. Everywhere we go there are stories of war, especially cities like Bradford which had Pals battalions. I have World War One books in my dressing-room, I’m so intrigued by this war. Michael Morpurgo often reminds us that this is a play about peace, not war. It looks at the whole conflict, through a neutral perspective. It doesn’t condemn any side, or hold up anyone as a hero. Joey ends up on French, German and British territory. This was a world war; people right across the world were affected. War Horse is a story of courage, loyalty and friendship - all universal themes.”

Remarkable puppetry bring lifesize horses to life. Anyone who has seen the show will know it’s as though real horses are on stage; a sudden noise has a horse pricking its ears or moving its head. “The puppeteers respond to the audience, so it’s a different show each night,” says Thomas. “If I say a line louder or more sharply one night, the horse reacts differently. As actors, we’re the fourth puppeteers. If we treat the horse as a piece of wood it doesn’t bring it to life. We have to know how to behave around horses - if we walk to the back of one we let it know we’re there. We follow Joey from being a foal; he has a huge connection with Albert, the audience feel that devotion and are equally moved, from children to war veterans.”

Adds Thomas: “There are no big set-pieces - these are lifesize horses and we make full use of the space. The battlefield set is stark; poles and fences for fields, barbed wire for No Man’s Land. It’s exciting to see schoolchildren respond, it sets their imagination loose.”

Originally from Northampton, now based in London, Thomas’s theatre career has spanned from the Edinburgh Festival to New York. Alongside Albert, the other role close to his heart was Christopher in the National Theatre’s acclaimed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. “Each role is an actor’s dream. And to play Albert this year is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.

When Thomas makes his Alhambra debut, he’ll follow the footsteps of his great great grandmother, Barbara Ashley, who performed there with the Sherman Dancers in 1927 and her son, Ronnie Plummer, (Thomas’s great uncle), who played saxophone in a show there in 1952. “When I told my mum about this tour, she said I’d be the third generation to appear at the Alhambra. It’ll be quite a moment, walking onto that stage,” smiles Thomas.

* War Horse runs at the Alhambra from February 14 to March 10. Call (01274) 432000.