Tuesday 11th April, 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Running Wild’ tells many stories, but is framed around a little girl named Lilly who takes a trip to Indonesia with her mother after her father’s death. There is subsequently a tsunami and the elephant Lilly is riding (Oona) runs off into the jungle where Lilly must fend for herself amidst wild creatures, lack of food and dangerous humans. This adaptation from Samuel Adamson, staged by Children’s Touring Partnership, succeeds on many levels but does at times come across as unnecessarily simplistic and particularly at odds with the subject matter. That said, the action is well directed and the cast are a well oiled machine with some great puppetry skills and the ability to bring such a grand scale children’s story to life with credibility.
Although the puppets (from designers and directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Oliè) are essentially the stars of this show purely for their visual impact and the awe they inspire, Lilly, played in this performance by Annika Whiston, is almost a constant on stage and for an actress to carry a production like this at 12 years old is extremely impressive. Whiston portrayed Lilly’s journey with great conviction and I’m sure she captured the hearts of children in the audience as she faced terrifying, murderous poachers, a very hungry tiger and the confusion of her situation. There is also a lot of warmth in this production despite the serious themes and gritty scenes; the relationship between Lilly and her father (Kazeem Tosin Amore) is very endearing, presenting us with a relatively rare young female protagonist with a love of sport and family. There’s also the gradual relationship between Lilly and Oona (puppeteered by Wela Mbusi, James Charlton, Elisa De Gray and Michael Peters) with some sweetly childish moments of laughter. A group of highly entertaining Orangutans with adorably playful babies are likewise a source of happy, innocent entertainment, while puppets of fish and birds serve as reminders of the simple beauties in nature. Lilly’s mother and grandmother (Balvinder Sopal and Liz Crowther respectively) provide vitally reassuring figures who help to even out the more heart-thumping aspects of the story.
Paul Wills’ set is striking, with the debris of the tsunami framing the stage dramatically while various creative set pieces are used with simplicity. More striking than the set though is the sound design (Rod Paton, Nick Powell, Nick Sagar); the most dramatic of scenes are heavily reliant on the tense, pounding, enveloping sounds of the jungle as nature and man destroy any sense of order. The visuals created to represent the tsunami and the bush fire are brilliant, with a real sense of threat created in the clever combination of stomping, yelling, music, light and various set pieces. I was very impressed with the direction (Timothy Sheader, Dale Rooks) in such scenes – the sense of urgency and suspense were perfectly poised to capture the imagination of youngsters. The production is also quite stylised in places, with recurring ghostly visitations and earlier dialogue played back as Lilly struggles to find a way forward on the smoke filled stage, and that atmospheric handling of her confusion is a great strength of this production.
There’s certainly plenty to fall in love with in this production – namely the incredible puppets and the plucky young protagonist who feels fear though she neither gives in or gives up in the face of it, but I am also a little torn about this production because the content makes me sceptical of the 6+ age advisory. For all the joy of the adorable and thrilling puppets, this production deals heavily with themes of death, violence and threat. The puppets are thoroughly engaging, so youngsters will love them at any age and many will inevitably have the threat and tragedy wash over them as they remain enraptured by those beautiful puppets. However, it must be said that the prominence of talk of death, visuals of body bags, guns, a coffin and dead animals (one of which is shot and ‘killed’ on stage) may well be a little much for some very young children. I think the story is gripping with a strong sense of adventure running through it, and I whole-heartedly applaud the fact that it teaches young people about various important conservation issues, but some of the parents attending with very young children may well have regretted that decision!
What such gritty content does do is very effective; it uses lovable animals brilliantly brought to life with skilful puppetry in order to teach young people about poaching, deforestation, loss, war and perseverance. There’s no missing the heavy messages about how atrocious it is that animals and jungles are being killed off for profit and for such distinctly human luxuries as soap and oil. The messages are cleverly delivered by the narrative which sees Lilly realise the importance of both nature and animals in the midst of her own losses (both parents die in the course of this narrative).
This is an enjoyable production which handles a wide range of important topics commendably. It likely sparks important conversations with impressionable minds as they process the somewhat shocking facts delivered by Lilly’s story – and it’s never too soon to give a child a sense of responsibility and an understanding of the importance of nature. The puppets will delight youngsters of any age without question and I do heartily recommend Running Wild to parents of plucky young children who like adventure and don’t quake in the face of threat – I only wish I could have taken my nephew along!
Running Wild plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 15th April and you can get your tickets here.