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The Butterfly Lion (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Butterfly Lion
By Michael Morpurgo, in a new adaptation by Anna Ledwich.
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre
performance date: 05 Oct 2019
venue: Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 6AP

Adam Buchanan (right) as Bertie in THE BUTTERFLY LION at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlen


Imagine a white boy growing up in South Africa in the early years of the 20th Century. He’s a bit lonely and confused by the harshness of life around him especially when his father shoots a white lioness. Bertie befriends her orphaned cub, a relationship which triggers a complicated story within a story within a story – a Russian Doll, narrative, as it were. It takes us to a prep school in southern England at three points in the century and to the horror of Northern France in WW1. Also woven in is a beautiful love story, alongside the central leonine friendship.

Dale Rooks, who runs Chichester’s excellent Learning and Participation Programme, is a stunningly good director and she squeezes every ounce of magic, emotion and delight from Anna Ledwich’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel using a large, talented cast of adults and children.

Nicola Sloane is warm and engaging as Old Millie, who is telling the story of her late husband and his lion to a young Michael Morpugo who has fled from his loathed prep school. She finds a very charismatic depth of wisdom in the character. Claudia Jolly plays the younger Millie with the same feisty warmth both when, for instance, she’s working in a field hospital and when she’s back home with Bertie.

I liked Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s work as the adult Michael Morpurgo, returning to his old school as a troubled, thoughtful famous author and doubling as dapper French circus owner Monsieur, later a pitiful, war-broken old man.

This is epic drama ranging over many issues including the inevitability of death. There’s the usual Morpurgo pacifism, concern for animals, empathy with children totally misunderstood by adults set in a sweep across more than a century. And we are invited continually to reflect on story telling and how it works. Simon Higlett’s set and Johanna Town’s lighting support all of this admirably especially when shapes and colours emerge on the floor like one of those old fashioned painting books when you simply stroked a bit of water on to the page to bring out the images. It’s a show full of theatrical surprises.

And there’s puppetry, of course, Nick Barnes has achieved some lovely things here. There’s one wonderful – not a dry eye in the house – moment when something enters from the rear and we all gasp in wonder but I won’t spoil it for you. There is also a nice dog named Jack who woofs and charges about wagging his tail with great conviction along with hundreds of blue butterflies.

There are some rather fabulous scenes too in which the whole ensemble morphs into a group of African animals. The hippo, the bird, the giraffe and so on grazing or coming to the water hole are all enjoyably recognisable. Physical theatre is yet another element well used in this fine production.

This is the last show in Chichester Festival Theatre’s main 2019 season and its second main season show for family audiences (last year’s The Midnight Gang was the first). The season has been imaginatively varied but I think we really did have to wait to the end for the very best. I’m normally scathing about first night audiences who leap excitedly to their feet at the end of just about anything but on this occasion the standing ovation was richly deserved. The Butterfly Lion has the potential to transfer or tour. Remember where you first read that.

Adam Buchanan (centre) and members of the company in THE BUTTERFLY LION at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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