Running Wild at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh is one of those unexpectedly brilliant theatrical experiences that come along far too rarely and, sadly, can so easily fall under the radar of many theatre goers.
Originally produced by Chichester Festival Theatre and Regent’s Park Theatre, this Children’s Touring Partnership production features sensational puppetry by some of the people who worked on the acclaimed “War Horse” production – Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie of Gyre & Gimble. If you think that this is “just a children’s production”, then you could not be any more wrong. There is a real story here that has some very dark elements to it. Although children (depending on their age) and adults in the audience may be interacting with this story at different levels as it unfolds, none of these darker and difficult elements are sugar coated for the children in the audience.
Running Wild is adapted from the book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, and the book itself continues the author’s own interests in wildlife and conservation plus a love since childhood of earlier classics such as “The Jungle Book” and “The Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling, and of course the classic poem by William Blake –“The Tyger”.
In our story, a young English girl of 9 years old is visiting Indonesia, and ends up in the Indonesian rain forest on the back of an elephant called Oona. Why Lilly came to be in Indonesia, and why she finds herself heading into the rain forest I am not telling you as the opening scenes telling this story are very powerful and should be experienced at the theatre with no idea of what is coming (unless of course you have read the book or seen this performance before). As Lilly - brilliantly played by India Brown tonight (one of three possible young actors in the role) – enters further into the forest, we encounter more forest dwellers brought wonderfully to life by imaginative puppetry...the tiger and the orangutans may be the most obviously striking, but there are far more than these. We also encounter the most evil forest dwellers of all – man as the illegal hunter and poacher and man who is burning the native forests to the ground to clear space for the replanting of the area with oil palm trees to feed the world’s seemingly insatiable desire for Palm Oil. Caught in the carnage produced by all of this greed are the wildlife, insect life, marine life and fauna of the rainforest and also any tribal forest dwellers indigenous to the region.
The puppetry is outstanding here, and manages to capture the essence of living animals in movement and somehow also in personality. So skilfully done is all of this that after a short period of time our eyes start to ignore the puppeteers on stage as they manipulate their life sized puppets. The recreation of our central animal character Oona is amazing to watch as she is brought to life a bit like a rainforest “Chinese festival dragon”. Huge care and attention to detail has been given to the look of the animals – these are not children’s puppets for a children’s show, these are animals brought to life by the magic of puppetry and the visual space of your imagination that only a theatre can provide.
Our “magical” puppets do at times run the risk of over shadowing excellent performances from our human cast, but the story itself and the skilful writing of characters that we can actually care about as an audience allow a talented cast to work alongside and integrate into this “rain forest world” seamlessly. Our principal actors – Dad/Red Bandana (Kazeem Tosin Amore), Mum (Balvinder Sopal) Grandma (Liz Crowther), Mahout/Kaya/Nurse (Stephen Hoo), Dr Geraldine (Corinna Powlesland) and Mr Anthony (Jack Sandle) are all excellent in their respective roles, and as your imagination adjusts to our “rainforest of puppeteers”, there seems nothing un-natural in their interaction with the puppet animals. The driving characters of this story, and upon whom so much of the reality of this show must rest belong to India Brown’s amazing and sensitive portrayal of Lilly and the puppeteers that make up Oona the elephant.
This performance of course has a heavy conservation element to it, and an educational pack is also available. Exactly what conservation levels our younger audience members will come away from this performance with I do not know, but at very least it should make a younger generation think about some things and the most brutal fact is that unless something is done very fast, some of the animals in these rain forests will simply no longer be with us by the time most of the young people in this audience are adults (or even teenagers). Our legacy to them is never knowing these animals alive and in their natural habitat.
As adults, we can all leave the theatre and say that “something has to be done – we can’t allow this to happen….only evil people are doing this, this is not in my name”. The sad truth however is that when it comes to conservation of all that we share this planet with, we are all hypocrites. As long as we as consumers continue to buy products with palm oil from sources that have caused this destruction, thus feeding the apparently insatiable global demand for the product and in so doing create an economy based on and economic wealth for companies using this product, all of us have the blood of the rainforest on our hands and must take direct responsibility at some level for the wildlife and ecological disaster we continue to unleash on not only the rainforests, but this planet.
Review by Tom King