Running Wild is the latest theatrical taken from the collection of the peerless Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and the first children’s literature laureate. It is currently doing a short run at The Blackpool Grand Theatre, so altB’s David Simper headed down there to check it out.
Running Wild follows Lilly, recovering from the loss of her father, embarking on a journey for a fresh start in Indonesia and the subsequent mother and daughter’s separation in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Working elephant, Oona, senses the coming catastrophe and carries Lilly away from the beach where she was enjoying a ride, into the jungle to safety, saving her life.
Alone in the green wilderness, Lilly starts to interact with her environment and the creatures within it, for better and for worse. Oona is able to protect Lilly from nature, but danger comes in the form of the humans who find her. They behave diabolically, particularly to Lilly’s orangutan friends, who she has named after Chelsea players (nobody’s perfect). The story is fair and plants kindness and compassion among the brutalised men, one paying a cruel price for the latter quality.
Despite it’s target audience, the play, just like the novel, is not afraid to tackle some pretty heavy themes. These include the Iraq war, exotic pet smuggling and environmental destruction. At one stage an evil character turns the tables, pointing out to the audience that it’s the general thirst for palm oil that leads to rain forest clearance and the loss of orangutans. I am intending to check all the products I use.
In a recent interview with altB’s Lisa Bower, Morpurgo discussed his approach in dealing with such topics in children’s literature. He said “I do think it’s important not to talk down to children. There is sadness in life, just as there is joy. Thousands and thousands of people lost loved ones in the tsunami. It was in the news for weeks and the stories that emerged were horrible. I always try to write from the heart, to tell it as I find it. I think I write at my best when I feel my story most intensely, when I write with a passion about something I care about deeply, feel deeply. It may be about loss and grief, war and sadness. But wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption, not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart.”
At one point, we are unaware whether Oona has survived and here there is real jeapardy: could a young elephant carry on after taking three AK47 assault rifle rounds? The bold lighting and strong sound effects, could seem like a risk with some quite young children present, but I heard no crying. The audience appeared to be enthralled which is a testament to its strength, despite the fact Running Wild is not afraid to show death and loss. I would have been grateful for tissues.
With the puppeteers on the stage operating Oona and the orangutans, it would seem logical that disbelief would have to be suspended, however their presence merges to become just part of the personality. An incredible amount of work has gone into making the animal movements so natural and all the animal puppets seemed so alive. I felt that particular credit must go to the person operating Oona’s trunk who was just incredible, as she brought the puppet to life.
In contrast to the complex puppetry, designed and directed by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, the minimalist set consists mainly of broken debris, old furniture and sheets of cloth. Combined with the striking lighting, this enables a lot of different circumstances to be portrayed. Add a little smoke and some torches and there’s a forest fire, bulbs on the end of wands – fireflies; I particularly like the puppet fish that Lilly quickly learns to spear.
Despite most of the characters in the play being animals, humanity is very critically examined. The ‘animals are more noble than us’ message might feel a little strong, but self-examination is often uncomfortable. However, there are human characters who behave nobly. The guilt-ridden grandmother in her desperate search. The bandit who finds he’s not quite so brutal that he can shoot a nine year old girl in cold blood. These stand out as messages of hope.
Jemima Bennett deserves great praise for her portrayal of Lilly; she is clearly a great talent. She took a minute to catch her voice, but after that she was as clear as a bell. All the cast, some playing multiple roles, were clearly deeply committed to this production and they thoroughly deserved their lengthy curtain calls.
Given that this show is intended for children, I took the precaution of taking my 10 year old for a second opinion and we were not disappointed. We walked happily from the theatre into the night. An excellent family production overall that did well in its exploration of a British girl in foreign territory. There are even elephant fart jokes: how British is that? I’d recommend this show to all without question.
You can see Running Wild at The Blackpool Grand Theatre until 8th April. To book tickets, visit the box office or the website.
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