Writer: Michael Morpugo
Adaptor: Samuel Adamson
Director: Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
They say never work with children or animals, Running Wild ignores this old adage and as a result, triumphs. True, the menagerie is the product of exquisite puppetry but nevertheless, this is a special production. The Children’s Touring Partnership presents a story which, like all good children’s tales is accessible to all, doesn’t pull punches and delivers a message. All with inventive visuals and wistful imagery.
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 2009 novel, tonight’s production takes heavy inspiration from the accounts of young girl Lily, who was saved from the tragic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami by the elephant she was riding. Lily (this evening played by India Brown) loses her father to the Iraq war and to help move on her grandmother suggests a trip for Lily and her mother to Indonesia, her parents birth nation. Horrifically, losing her mother in the Tsunami, Lily is carried into the trees by Oona, a beach elephant. Together the two traverse the landscape surviving, growing and searching for a way home.
Excluding Brown as Lily, our human cast plays second fiddle to seven vastly talented puppeteers who breathe life into Oona the Elephant, an excruciatingly adorable baby Orangutan and several others. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié for Gyre and Gimble puppetry have outdone themselves with a wealth of jungle critters. So much heart inhabits these creations it is a testament to the monumental talent in the technical effects and prop production and should be applauded.
This first act, which closes in a heart-stopping manner, is exchanged for a visually striking, but dampened second half. The production falls victim to the 90s trope of environmental villainy. The real monster in the jungle is not nature itself, not the starvation, predators or tsunami but the most nefarious darkness; Man. While true, and the full extent of the damage of palm oil is a necessity which must be addressed, the message itself is hammered in too awkwardly. A text created for children should find the middle ground between pandering and going over their heads. Most often, a children’s story has a grander impact on the adults in the audience who may find the message less than subtle, especially in the closing moments.
In tandem with a strong set design, reflecting the torn debris in the wake of the tsunami, is an equally well-thought lighting design. Vivid contrasts to emulate the tsunami are equally toned down to allow for touching scenes. Such as fireflies dancing around Oona and the birth of a new fresh day in the jungle. Ripped umbrellas, plastic holiday chairs and car doors serve as building blocks for the trees and growth. A grim, but poignant reminder of what Lily has escaped.
Running Wild is the kind of production which plants seeds. Seeds which will grow in the children awed at the puppets and shriek at the harsh realities of life. Whether these flourish into theatre technicians, environmental protectors or just a knowledge of how (sadly) our commercial world functions, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Running Wild is not simply War Horse of the jungle. It stands alone as a breath-taking show with vastly touching performances from our young star, and immeasurable ability from puppeteers, conveying monumental emotions from small details.
Runs until 6 May 2017 | Image: Contributed