The magical Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is now playing host to an adaptation of Running Wild, a book by celebrated children’s author (and former laureate) Michael Morpurgo.
In many ways this story is like an environmental War Horse, Morpurgo’s book about the adventures of brave equine Joey on the Western front, which was made into a smash-hit National Theatre production and a slightly less successful Steven Spielberg film.
But instead of Joey, we have Oona the elephant, who saves a boy from the terrible 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Poor young Will had travelled there with his mother at the instigation of his grandparents, following the death of his beloved father at the hands of an IED in Afghanistan. It gets worse. While in the jungle he and Oona befriend a troop of orangutans, only for them to be attacked by hunters who kidnap Will and two young apes and carry them to their lair. His mother, it is clear, has drowned. My seven-year-old daughter was OK with all this, but I wouldn’t recommend this show for the very young.
As a stage production, Running Wild is beautifully realised and modulated. Oona certainly stands comparison with Joey, the National Theatre’s ground-breakingly graceful puppet. Its movements and look – down to the bare patches of pink skin dotting its husky old hide – are perfectly achieved; and the puppet-work from War Horse alumni Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie is fantastic – especially when Oona is carrying the boy, which is probably hard graft for the people inside.
Props as well to the shaggy orangutans who move with grace, their moments of intimacy with Will and other friendly humans never leaning toward anthropomorphism. The tiger was beautiful but didn’t move with the believable precision of the other animals, and so was perhaps not as fearsome and formidable as it could have been. Other touches from directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks were dazzling: the sung music effects of the sea from the chorus and the patter of rain, the huge blue material that represented the tsunami and enveloped the audience at one point took my breath away.
Another deft decision is alternating the role of the young hero between a male and female actor – the main character is Lilly on other evenings. Joshua Fernandes put in a strong and capable performance, although some of his lines can grate. Will is a Manchester United supporter whose banter with his mates feels like it has been written by someone who has never actually heard how real children speak to each other; the desire to give the impression of creating a believable young child with normal interests is commendable but over-wrought at moments.
Similarly the adventure story does feel shoehorned into a neat little homilies at key moments. The baddie hunters are all-too cartoonish villains, led by the Panama hat-wearing, white-suited brute from Del Monte Mr Anthony (Stephen Ventura). He gets his men to kill tigers for their skin, sells young orangutans on the open market and revels in cutting down trees to sell as palm oil.
“Palm oil gives them a life,” he says to Will, before extemporising on the fabulousness of greed and money.
“It’s only humans who kill for the greed or for the fun of it,” the boy shouts back. And you won’t leave the theatre without many a lesson on the ubiquity of this dreaded commodity in bread, soaps and biscuits ringing in your ears. Big business take note.
Children’s theatre does need to lay out its arguments simply and clearly. But sometimes it does feel a little too clean, a little too preachy, especially when the story runs out of steam towards the end.
But I would recommend this show for its visual inventiveness and for managing to take children into the darker areas of life – bereavement, death, environmental destruction – while emerging with a message of hope and encouragement.
Minor quibbles aside, that alone makes this a brilliant, life-affirming show.
Running Wild is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 12 June
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