Running Wild

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Samuel Adamson
Children's Touring Partnership
Theatre Royal Plymouth

Liz Crowther with Oona Credit: Dan Tsantilis
Frank, baby Orangutan and Mani (with Darcy Collins, Fred Davis and Romina Hytten) Credit: Dan Tsantilis

Wow. Puppetry has come such a long long way from the clunky all-strings on show Thunderbirds and Muffin the Mule days of yore.

In the noble mould of War Horse, Running Wild is populated by magnificent Asian animals with Oona the full-sized elephant dominating the stage with flapping ears, wandering trunk and such realistic eyes. And the collaboration with puppet masters Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié doesn’t stop there as a tiger, crocodile, fish and orangutans are beautifully observed too.

Citing a long-held reverence for all things jungle, Rudyard Kipling’s India stories and David Attenborough, children’s author Michael Morpurgo broke his self-imposed embargo on elephant and rainforest tales after the horrific tsunami in 2004.

Reading newspaper reports of an elephant running into the highlands ahead of the all-engulfing wave carrying with it the tourist child who, several days later, emerged from the jungle unharmed, Morpurgo was inspired to rewrite the story in Running Wild.

And thrown into the rather busy pot—and a strident, somewhat unsatisfactory second act—is a tirade on poaching and palm oil, conservation and exploitation.

Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of the book is brought to the stage by Children’s Touring Partnership and the ticket price is perhaps an investment given the future savings on at least Nutella and peanut butter if indeed the message is taken to heart.

Lilly (a slightly shrill but very impressive Annika Whiston on press night and with Jemima Bennett and India Brown taking their turn on other dates), mourning the death of her soldier father (Kazeem Tosin Amore), is holidaying in Indonesia with her mother (Balvinder Sopal) when further tragedy strikes. As luck would have it, she is astride beach ride elephant Oona who, sensing impending disaster, bolts for the hills but not before her mahout has explained how elephants communicate.

Adrift amongst the wonders (fireflies, abundant fruit and orangutans) and terrors (crocodiles, poachers and tigers), Lilly learns to survive with security provided by the enormous windy pachyderm and fun frolics by Frank(ie) Lampard (beautifully manipulated by Darcy Collins) and family.

Meanwhile, resolute and dire Victoria sponge-baker grandmother (Outnumbered’s Liz Crowther) leaves her Devon farm to search for Lilly armed with little more than hundreds of fliers and determination.

This is gritty stuff and few punches are pulled: Lilly is orphaned, there are deaths galore, orangutans are shot and their grieving babies sold as caged pets, tigers are only valued for their skins while acres of rainforests are torched to feed consumer greed for cheap palm oil (an ingredient in many foods and toiletries). Following a meandering and slightly overlong first act, there’s a tough lesson or six to be learned in a fast and nasty, heart-pounding second act with guns, violence and tears. Oh and there’s a wonderous sanctuary run by knowing animal liberationist Dr Geraldine (Corinna Powlesland) on a remote island accessible only by a weekly boat (except Oona and the orangutans somehow manage to rock up there on foot).

Paul Wills’s evocative set of mangled bedframes, splintered wood and debris keeps focus on the provenance of the tale; metal-framed abstract trees, umbrella plants and towering foliage create jungle while oil drums, cages and frayed rope reflect the base inhumanity of Mr Anthony (Jack Sandle) whose avarice ravages the environment and pushes species to the point of extinction.

The puppetry is an absolute joy and the polemic worthy of two hours of any child’s time. Running Wild now tops my young (10-year-old) companion’s list of favourites.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell

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