THE BUTTERFLY LION
Curve, Leicester, Thursday 12th April 2012
Daniel Buckroyd’s new adaptation of a Michael Murpurgo novel took me by surprise. Initially, I found myself thinking of all the things it reminded me of. The Lion King is one – there is an African setting, the puppets bear a family resemblance, the music has African rhythms and there is even a Circle-of-Life type chorus. This story however, tells us life is not circular. Life is linear, a journey from birth to death. “Butterflies live very short lives,” is one of the opening lines, introducing the theme of mortality and foreshadowing what is to come.
The story has much in common with Murpurgo’s more famous piece, War Horse. A young boy forms a friendship with an animal that has ‘something wrong’ with it. They are separated and reunited. World War One features (I expected War Lion to appear at any second) but in this case it is the boy who distinguishes himself through bravery. There is the additional element of a love story between Bertie (the boy) and Millie (the narrator) which begins when they are children and lasts until death do them part.
Storytelling is a key feature. This is a tale within a tale. Young Michael does a runner from his stuffy boarding school and the cruelty of bully Basher, and winds up at a house, a very big house in the country. Old Millie (Gwen Taylor) takes him in out of the rain. She tells him the story of Bertie and the white lion cub that became his friend. Michael (Joe Jameson) becomes Bertie but the staging of the switching in and out of stories is so clearly done, you are never confused about which character and which story you are watching. Jameson is an appealing protagonist, capturing Michael’s sadness and subsequent enthusiasm, and portraying Bertie across the years. Gwen Taylor’s Millie is an endearing old soul – not quite as effective when she’s the ten-year-old girl but such is the magic engendered by this production, you run with it, as she runs trying to get her box kite in the sky. This is a story within a story about a story. There is a final twist, a surprise, but by that point I was awash with tears anyway. This is a play about life, love and loss, the mortality of all things – but it is not morbid or mawkish in the least. It’s a celebration of everything life throws at us all, a life lesson not just for the kids in the audience.
The puppets are wonderful. Deceptively simple in design and expertly handled, they allow the audience to read emotions into the animals and small children they represent. The cast is like a well-oiled machine. The deep rich voice of Israel Oyelumade is the African counterpoint to Millie’s English narration. Msimisi Dlamini brings a touch of the exotic as circus owner Merlot. Robert Curtis, Sanchia McCormack and Christopher Hogben nip in and out, offering support as parents, teachers, soldiers, nurses and so on, along with scene-shifting and puppet work. Director Daniel Buckroyd has gathered a hard-working and effective ensemble to perform his inventive ideas.
This was opening night and I spotted a couple of missed cues but there was nothing to detract from my enjoyment and appreciation of this magical, life-affirming piece of theatre.