‘Running Wild’ is based on the bestselling novel by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, and was adapted by Samuel Adamson. It follows the story of schoolgirl Lilly, who travels to Indonesia with her mother; both to learn about her mother’s Indonesian heritage and to escape from the stress of her late father’s recent death in combat. Lilly is riding her favourite animal – an elephant called Oona – along the beach when suddenly Oona takes flight into the deepest depths of the jungle, with Lilly clutching on for dear life. Meanwhile, an enormous tsunami hits the beach, savaging the landscape and tragically claiming the life of Lilly’s mother. Initially panic ensues as Lilly realises she is lost, but eventually the unlikely duo learn to understand each other, and help one another through a charming journey of hunger, tiger attacks and poachers to ultimate safety.
Clearly, from this brief description alone there are several challenges in staging, especially for a touring production. The creative team did a truly exceptional job: Paul Wills’ set of household debris, which physically moved to represent different locations, worked beautifully with James Whiteside’s lighting. One moment neon bulbs were flashing as panic ensued and the next we were transported into a lush and green rainforest. When the tsunami struck (through actors being dragged under an enormous billowing cloth canopy) it was genuinely frightening.
In this performance, Lilly was played by eleven-year-old India Brown, with a level of confidence and authenticity I would respect in a trained adult actor. Her relationship with her Grandma – beautifully portrayed by Liz Crowther – came across very realistically, and this must be especially hard to do when Lilly is played by three different actresses on different performances. Considering the number of scenes when Lilly was alone and speaking to a mute puppet, it was remarkable how believable she made it and how well she drove the plot along.
Arguably the star of the show was the puppetry of the rainforest dwellers. From the first moment Oona, in the form of ten-foot elephant puppet, stepped on stage with Lilly on its back, it was clear that this production maintained a level of creative professionalism above many others. Mechanical operations of the puppets were not concealed but incorporated into the animalistic movements, with the puppeteers themselves flawlessly embodying several emotions on their own faces. The result was a breath-taking choreography of the jungle: from orangutans playing to an enchanting river of shimmering fish, there was a rich and vibrant tapestry of life brought to the stage in the most unique way. To feel an emotional connection to a set of fibreglass casts is all credit to the phenomenal work of puppet designers Finn Caldwell and Tony Olié, who represent Gyre and Gimble, and to those who operate them effortlessly each night.
My main concern, however, was the script. Whilst I understand that the book will always have scope to hold more information, I think it is absolutely crucial to distill the plot into a form that is thoroughly accessible for a theatre audience. It is a play adaptation rather than an exact replica, and new considerations must be taken into account and planned for. For example, the death of Lilly’s father ensued within about five minutes of the play beginning, and it felt rather rushed – as though its sole purpose was a driver for the trip to Indonesia. I can understand that the adaptation wanted to remain true to the story, but I think it would have been more successful to leave it out and for Lilly and her mother simply to have gone on holiday. A book can make this scene respectful to every age: by including a subtle level of ambiguity in the quantity of information, the reader is left to add as much detail as is age-appropriate in their imagination, which will undoubtedly be influenced by life experience. A play cannot afford this luxury, and even if something is portrayed abstractly, it will still have a strong sense of literality. I would have liked to see a sense of the play being more of its own entity, as it is certainly strong enough to have done so. By trying to incorporate something for every age group, it ever so slightly missed the mark of appealing to a single age range entirely. However, if adult me was reduced to a curious child again, I can only imagine how much fun the younger members of the audience must have had.
Regardless, the company did a fantastic job of bringing the script they had to life, and though its recommended age range was 6+, there were several moments during which both my friend and I were on the edge of our seats with baited breath. The overall impression of this piece was – in a word – majestic, although it felt that individual scenes were hit and miss due to the dialogue, with the weaker ones being carried forward by the grandeur of the larger visuals.
On a few occasions I felt that flashbacks to Lilly’s dead parents were neither endearing nor completely essential, and again this stems back to the content of the script. With a piece like this, which relies so heavily on unusual puppetry and flashy set changes to progress, it can sometimes seem like basic storytelling elements are not considered as important. Having such a magnificent set can enhance a piece, but not entirely create it.
Nevertheless, several elements of this production were world-class and in spite of a couple of flaws, for those two hours on a cold Tuesday night, we really were running wild.
Running Wild runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday 6th May 2017. Further tour dates can be found at www.runningwildlive.co.uk.