India Brown as Lilly with Oona. Picture: Dan Tsantilis
HOW could a play that brings an elephant, a tiger and six orang-utans onstage (albeit puppet versions, not the real thing) not be a sure-hit success with both children and grown-ups? Let alone when based on an original story by Michael Morpurgo.
It’s certainly the puppeteers who score the top marks in this touring show, mounted by The Children’s Touring Partnership, whose shows to date have included versions of Swallows and Amazons, Goodnight Mr. Tom, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, and now, Running Wild.
By puppeteers, one means two things: the Designers, Gyre and Gamble (alias Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié) who have produced in every instance, from a beautiful range of materials, incredibly lifelike animals, pride of place being a four-man elephant whose hide looks unnervingly like the real thing. But everything depends on the puppeteers who actually play the sections: the endlessly questing trunk (Elisa de Grey) and massive, superbly inclining head (James Charlton), two pairs of brilliantly moved legs, plus attendant snorts and farts and massive trumpeting, brought these encounters with Oona the elephant vividly to life.
Going for a walk in Coventry,
elephant Oona, with puppeteer
Elisa de Grey
in the lead
Going for a walk in Coventry, elephant Oona, with puppeteer Elisa de Grey in the lead
The Sumatran Tiger (Romina Hytton, Fred Davis) is one bad guy, and the way this striped enemy, a positive Shergar, roars is as impressive as Oona’s use of her trunk to feed herself. Another rotter is a crocodile of fearsome aspect. A school of fish which Lilly mercilessly attacks is quite a hit. Others take the role of four adult orangs and two babies. The latter manage to steal the show by being so lifelike, in the movement of their heads and gallivanting bodies; the reactions were positively human; you could see how close they come to us.
Actually it’s English girl Lilly, the ‘wild child’ and diminutive human heroine of this in many respects cracking show, who generally rules the roost: she responds to being orphaned by the terrible 2004 tsunami by taking off under her own steam, riding the elephant into the Indonesian jungle and making friends with creatures in the wild, before her grandmother comes searching and rediscovers her in her jungle fastness.
Three young actors share the role on different nights. Here, it was 11 year old India
Brown, whose credits include a role in The Lion King at London’s Lyceum Theatre, who has the lion’s share, a vast spoken role to learn and remember, and one she carried off with glorious aplomb. Lilly is daring, bolshie, imperious, possessive, intelligent, hyperactive, and her touching relationship with her one special elephant, Oona, is at the centre of this story.
The other individual parts – the briefly depicted parents, for instance – were all amiably enough played, albeit not always as imaginatively as they might have been; a little functionally. The Grandmother, for instance (Liz Crowther), struck me as weakly underdirected. The two exceptions who seemed to generate a more significant individuality latterly were Jack Sandle as the villainous Mr. Anthony, a poacher who has no compunction in firing his guns at anything and anyone, and Corinna Powlesland as the sympathetic and rather wise Dr. Geraldine.
So the emphasis fell on Lilly to get across much of Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s original. So spirited was Lilly, she sometimes tended to gabble, and this was not helped when the (very appropriate and usually nicely judged) musical score – jungle drumming and so on (Nick Powell, Louise Anna Duggan, with Nick Sagar as Sound Designer) periodically obscured what she had to say, or even shout.
Award winning it may be, but I had the feeling that Samuel Adamson’s adaptation might have made more of, indeed clarified, the story more than it did. Certain early scenes seemed a bit thin; some central and later ones, a bit cluttered.
Talking of clutter, one was faced by Paul Wills’s efforts to evoke a jungle setting. This consisted of a positive forest of chairs, table legs, snippets of wood and furniture, not to mention sticks of fluorescent lighting, which sprawled higgledy-piggledy on netting spanning the ceiling. From one point of view, it was a jumble, like an overladen second hand furniture shop. From another, it created a densely packed canopy suggesting – by implication - the vast range of natural growth that populates the jungle. I found it marginally distracting, an idea that rather overreached itself: a cluttered ceiling for a rather cluttered story. Yet would a rooftop of fronds and deciduous trees have worked better? Possibly not.
So Running Wild came across as an exquisite animal story, with a brilliant if frantic young protagonist (Lilly), but in places a bit of a muddle. Some tightening and tidying and explaining by Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks would serve it well.
The original version was generated by the excellent Chichester Festival Theatre and the blossoming Regent’s Park Theatre, with input here from Fiery Angel Theatre Company (part of the Children’s Touring Partnership). Full marks for an overall effort, but the environmental messages about live creatures seriously at risk and forests ripped apart for palm oil, and above all the superlative, thrilling animal puppetry (witness the reuniting of mother and baby orang-utan), were the things that here at the Belgrade scored highest. To 25-02-17