Devon, war, children and plenty of animals: all Michael Morpurgo staples, but Running Wild is no ordinary beast. Think of The Jungle Book in the modern world, with all the perils that habitat faces in the 21st century, and you’re heading in the right direction. The show has recently started out on a UK tour following runs at Chichester in 2015 and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last year.
Lilly is nine years old and has recently lost her dad to the war in Iraq; she struggles to accept what has happened and her grief-stricken mother has no idea how to help her. At the suggestion of her paternal grandmother, the pair take a Christmas holiday to Indonesia to show Lilly the environment her maternal family grew up in. Here Lilly meets an elephant called Oona (her favourite animal) and seems to finally be happy again – but tragedy is once again waiting around the corner, as the year is 2004 and a devastating tsunami is on its way. From sheer instinct Oona heads to safety with Lilly on her back, and from then on the pair face a real fight for survival in the rainforest.
As expected from a Morpurgo tale, there is no shying away from darker and more serious themes – this time less the effect of war, but more of the devastation humanity is causing in the wild. The plight of the orangutan is a cause that’s close to my heart, so the fact that a family show is directly addressing that issue will hopefully be a great boost to conservation efforts in the near future.
This story could only be told onstage via the medium of puppetry. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié (for Gyre & Gimble) have created some truly extraordinary lifesize figures that help paint a vivid picture of life in the jungle, including a tiger, several orangutans (even some babies, which elicited cooing from the audience) and Oona herself. They are operated with great skill and dexterity by a team of puppeteers, who you really don’t notice standing there holding – or inside of – the puppets. There is an incredible attention to detail in their actions that does make you forget they aren’t real animals.
Paul Wills’ set design is interesting; rather than a traditional forest setup, it is actually made up of bits of junk to symbolise the environment’s destruction. It might’ve been nice to have some trees there to begin with, to further demonstrate the contrast between the country’s natural state and what it is becoming thanks to human interference.
The show is backed by original compositions from Rod Paton, giving it a real taste of the rainforest from beginning to end.
Standout performances come from India Brown (playing Lilly for this performance) and Liz Crowther as Lilly’s grandma Rebecca. Brown does well to lead the show, making Lilly feisty and a force to be reckoned with – occasionally this does border on stroppiness, but it’s quite understandable that Lilly would be caught up in a whirlwind of emotions, each struggling for dominance.
My verdict? A non-stop adventure for all the family with an important message at its core – the puppetry is simply outstanding.