If you thought ‘War Horse’ was good…‘Running Wild’ takes theatrical puppetry to a new level of excellence. The renowned children’s author Michael Morpurgo found the story in a press cutting … the first positive news to come out of the widespread suffering caused by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.
An elephant was giving a child tourist a ride along a beach when the beast sensed earthquakes out to sea. The creature’s agitation gave way to self-preservation and, knowing what would happen next, she charged off, up into the jungle with her young passenger on her back…thus saving them both. Then followed the elephant’s quest to protect the child … and the child’s quest to find its family.
It is an amazing story and this truly magical piece of theatre tells it with both beauty and brutal reality. There is no papering over the unpleasantries in a Morpurgo story as he explores the responsibilities of ancestry and destiny, and the horrors of poaching and palm oil production; all without compromise, at a level every child can comprehend.
The elephant is amazing. She’s called Oona and in the hands of four expert and highly visible puppeteers she does everything an elephant should do…and quite a few things it shouldn’t. She has fabulous flapping ears and a hugely inquisitive trunk that gets into everything … but which also protects and lovingly cradles her young companion. The puppeteers’ observations of how an elephant moves and expresses emotion are exquisite…and their ability to replicate it all with a fibreglass shell and a trunk like a giant bedspring is remarkable. They can convey the creature’s distress with the gentlest of gestures. And, of course, the whole idea of an elephant massively breaking wind is guaranteed to delight any young audience.
The child in Morpurgo’s version of the story is a girl called Lily, played on press night by 12-year-old Annika Whiston, who has the professionalism and stage presence of an actor twice her age. She is a complete master of the moment; delivering what are often long monologues with only a puppet to play against. It is a truly impressive and highly emotive performance.
Like Mowgli in ‘Jungle Book’ she meets other creatures. The children’s favourites must be the orange, woolly orangutans; which are characterised by elongated arms, rotund bellies and a complete absence of legs. Once more their movements are immaculately recreated, including their propensity to kiss people. And, just when you think that’s cute…on come the baby orangutans; which Lily christen with the names of her favourite Chelsea players.
The tiger provides the tension. Beautiful as it is to look at, it sees Lily as a tasty snack and only Oona can bar her way…which leads to a pretty realistic David Attenborough-style battle between the beasts until the tiger high-tails it. It reappears later…but as a carcass hanging from a poacher’s pole…causing the young audience to have to reassess their emotions. The simple message is that Nature is red in tooth and claw … and Man is the bloodiest of all.
Of the other humans, Liz Crowther pulls most heartstrings as the grandma who comes to Indonesia to try to find her orphaned grandchild … and sets up Lily’s final dilemma about where she truly belongs.
This is a special show played out in a shattered world…the stage scattered with flotsam and jetsam. The tsunami itself is cleverly done; the drama building from the moment we sense what Oona senses…to the arrival of the swallowing sea. And Man’s environmental immorality is laid bare for all to see. If we want a world worth living in, we already know what we must do about it.
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Photos : Dan Tsantilis