Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th June, 2017
Michael Morpurgo’s animal stories (think War Horse, think Butterfly Lion) have become prime fodder for theatre aimed at children, but don’t let that mislead you. The stories tackle grown-up issues and major themes, and this touring production of Running Wild is an excellent case in point.
Nine-year-old Lily’s dad is killed in the Iraq war. She travels with her mother to Indonesia, where mum is drowned by a tsunami but Lily is saved by the actions of her elephant friend Oona. Together, girl and elephant live in the rain forest until their Jungle Book lives are interrupted by orangutan poachers. As if themes of loss and grief aren’t enough, the story packs in themes of conservation, animal protection and consumerism, as Lily goes through an eye-opening, eye-watering journey, a learning experience which is enough to radicalise anyone to vote for the Green Party and join every wildlife charity going.
In this performance, Annika Whiston makes an assured Lily, who finds her place in this cruel world of natural disaster and mankind’s folly. She is supported by an ensemble that includes Kazeem Tosin Amore as her dear old dad, Balvinder Sopal as mum, and RSC veteran Liz Crowther as Lily’s determined grandmother. There is likable support from Stephen Hoo in a range of roles and Corinna Powlesland as Dr Geraldine. Jack Sandle’s Australian baddie, Mr Anthony, exudes the evils of callous capitalism.
But the show belongs to the breath-taking puppets of Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié. It takes four skilful puppeteers to animate Oona and how quickly one forgets they are there in plain sight. Oona is life-sized and appears to be breathing, thinking and, yes, farting. Others too knock your eyes out: a beautiful tiger, a shoal of fish, a vicious crocodile lurking in the undergrowth. I have seen Olié’s work before – the man is a god, giving life to inanimate forms. Give him every award going.
Paul Wills’s set is a jungle of junk, comprised of broken bits of furniture, recycling wood to make the trees. Cleverly, it also suggests we are making a rubbish tip of our world. Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks pull no punches in telling this hard-hitting story, and carry it off with theatrical sophistication and flair: the tsunami scene is stylishly presented, for example, and the murder of a group of orangutans is brutal and upsetting. Walt Disney kept the shooting of Bambi’s mother off-screen; here, adaptor Samuel Adamson puts it centre stage and the impact is devastating.
No cute and cuddly kiddies’ tale, Running Wild is an action-packed, eventful story that engages its target audience thoroughly. The emotional impact is undeniable but I wonder how many members of the school parties that fill the auditorium will go home and demand a boycott of products that contain palm oil. Perhaps it falls to the grown-ups that accompany them to take this necessary step.
Curiously, the story doesn’t make a connection between the cruel treatment and exploitation of animals in the wild with the fate of those who live on Lily’s grandmother’s farm. That apart, this is quite the Greenest show I’ve seen and I can’t applaud it enough.