With the acclaim of War Horse, a high bar has been set for puppetry on the theatrical stage. King’s Theatre’s production of Running Wild, also based on a story by celebrated children’s author, Michael Morpurgo, manages to put on a show that is awe-inspiring in its own right.
Running Wild tells the story of Lilly (played with energy by the easily likable Annika Whiston), a nine-year-old girl living in England with her mother and father. After her father is killed serving in Iraq, Lilly and her mother (Balvinder Sopal) holiday in Indonesia, where Lilly meets and quickly comes to love an elephant named Oona.
But tragedy strikes yet again, this time in the form of the 2004 Tsunami, which causes the death of Lilly’s mother and leads Lilly (and Oona) to live a wild existence in the forest. They are mamy obstacles including poachers, and Mr Anthony, the story’s violent villain (excellently acted by Jack Sandle).
Samuel Adamson’s adaptation is for the most part well done. There are a few pacing issues, and some of the scenes tend to drag on unnecessarily, with some mundane dialogue at times. As the story picks up in the second half, however, it finds a more even footing.
Where the production shines, as might be expected, is in the effects. The puppetry design by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié is quite extraordinary, and the innovative way in which the actors are incorporated is impressive. Oona, the orangutans and the tiger are all handled with great skill. It is a testament to the realism of the movements that even with the puppeteers in plain view, it is easy to imagine the animals are living creatures.
Some of the other effects are equally immersive: a creatively choreographed sequence which simulates the crashing of the tidal waves, interspersed with hallucinatory imagery, is one of the play’s most spellbinding moments. Other scenes, which move between reality and dream, present and past, take full advantage of the theatre’s unique ability to awe in real-time.
The scenery itself, which consists, essentially, of an assortment of junkyard pieces, lends an interesting atmosphere to the forest environment. Green umbrellas act as trees and steel-like constructions border the action of the centre stage. The urban clothing of the puppeteers blends well into this overall theme.
We are left at the end of the production with a poignant, if often-heard message: we must protect our Earth. “We cannot eat money”, we are told, and we honestly may come to see the value of the natural world too late.
By dazzling us with the elaborate beauty of the puppetry, the play helps us to see why we must learn to appreciate the other animals with which we share the planet more fully before the damage we do is irrevocable.
Photo Credit: Dan Tsantilis