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Running Wild (Susan Elkin reviews)

For a show which was originally staged in the open air (first as a Chichester Festival Theatre production and then at Regents Park) Running Wild has moved indoors pretty successfully for its tour. Dale Rooks (CFT) and Timothy Sheader (Open Air Theatre Regents Park) have focused the action within the framework of Paul Wills’s elaborate set which includes junk and lots of nooks and crannies so that we get a real sense of being in Indonesia (except when we’re in Devon at the beginning). The sound effects – lots of drumming and choral work by the immaculately directed ensemble – are suitably atmospheric and the show makes evocative use of light especially when we see the eyes (only) of jungle animals.

Of course Michael Morpurgo’s tsunami survival story is in a long tradition of wild child tales from Romulus and Remus to The Jungle Book and the latter is frequently referenced. His version is set in the 2004 tsunami and inspired by the real life account of a child who survived because he happened to be on the back of a beach elephant which bolted to safety in the jungle. Adapted as a play by Samuel Adamson, it carries masses of scope for stage spectacle, imaginative ensemble work and ingenious physical theatre especially as the moment when the wave rolls in and engulfs everything and everyone in its way.

The real star of this show, of course, is the puppetry by Gyre and Gimble – Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell – who worked with Handspring on War Horse. Their almost full size elephant, operated by four people – a key character in this show – flaps her ears, works her feet and talks with her trunk and eyes. The illusion is astonishing. You can almost smell her (frequent!) farts and feel her thick grey hide. Then there are some very effective orangutans, a fabulous Sumatran tiger, lots of birds and a good scene with fish. Observation lies at the heart of good puppetry and the work in this show ticks every box.

Jemina Bennett (remember her from To Kill a Mockingbird?) turned in a strong performance as Lily on press night. It’s a huge role and she develops it pleasingly from bantering about football with her dad to a very different self-assured girl with real goals and determination at the end. She grows before our eyes. And her many scenes with the elephant are delightful.

I wish however that Morpurgo and his adaptor could be slightly more subtle. Of course I agree with the messages – the war in Iraq was wrong, we must protect and live in harmony with the jungle and its natural inhabitants and money certainly isn’t everything. I could however, have done without a clunkily didactic lecture about palm oil in the middle and Lily’s very obvious questions about the war which kills her father. Such things need to be grafted in very carefully but here they feel as if they’re bolted on which does nothing for theatricality. And, we know it’s the deal with anything by Morpurgo but the whole piece is mawkishly sentimental. Most of that, however, doesn’t show too much or too often because the show includes so many ‘wow’ moments and some very good acting.

First published by Sardines:

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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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