ChildrensDramaFamilyNorth East & YorkshirePuppetryReview

Running Wild – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adapter: Samuel Adamson
Directors: Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks
Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Children’s Touring Partnership is halfway through a four-month tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre/Regent’s Park Theatre production of Running Wild, a wonderfully elaborate production to take on the road. It is advertised as being for six-year-olds upwards, and Michael Morpurgo, Samuel Adamson and the directors have managed to create a piece that charms with child-like fantasy at the same time as confronting the reality of loss and promoting the importance of conservation.

A nine-year-old girl, Lilly, is carried away into the Indonesian jungle by Oona, a beach elephant on whom she is taking a tourist-type ride. The two learn to work together and come to love each other; Oona saves Lilly’s life several times. When the elephant is as convincing as Oona, beautifully and imaginatively designed and worked by four expert puppeteers, this is delightful – what nine-year-old would not be entranced by the thought of being protected by a lovable elephant?

However, reality is always there, often harsh reality. The reasons for this jungle adventure are tragic. Lilly’s father has been killed on active service in Iraq and her grandmother suggests a holiday in Lilly’s mother’s homeland of Indonesia to help the girl regain a sense of belonging. Then the tsunami strikes: Oona senses this, heads into the rain forest and saves Lilly’s life; Lilly’s mother, left on the beach, dies. 

Then the animal adventures are not all reaching high fruit for Lilly and watching orangutans gambolling. The danger of the tiger is nothing compared to the danger of predatory hunters killing or capturing endangered species, such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers. The same invaders threaten the destruction of the animals’ rainforest habitat to establish highly profitable palm oil plantations.

A large cast of actors and puppeteers forms an excellent ensemble, though this is not a production that draws attention to individual performances, with the exception of Lilly, played in turn by Jemima Bennett, India Brown and Annika Whiston; vulnerable, but feisty and brave, successfully carrying much of the narrative and interacting naturally with the “animals”. Liz Crowther’s Grandma, doggedly seeking her grand-daughter, Balvinder Sopal’s sympathetic Mum and Kazeem Tosin Amore’s jolly, Chelsea-supporting Dad are a convincing family group and Jack Sandle brings real menace to the Australian “Mr. Big” whose men capture Lilly.

However, it is the overall style of Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks’ production that stands out. Paul Wills’ set is all open space and billowing sheets, hung around with the debris of destruction; lighting (James Whiteside) and sound (Nick Powell, with effective use of chant-and-percussion music by Rod Paton) create atmosphere superbly; and Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie summon up a whole rainforest of animals in their puppets. From brief appearances by fish and birds to fully characterised elephant and orangutans, plus a beautifully slinky tiger, they amaze and delight.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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