Theatre review - Running Wild, The Lowry, Salford

PUBLISHED: 16:05 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 16:30 19 April 2017

India Brown as Lilly with Mani (with Fred Davis and Romina Hytten) 
Credit: Dan Tsantilis

India Brown as Lilly with Mani (with Fred Davis and Romina Hytten) Credit: Dan Tsantilis


Michael Morpurgo’s story Running Wild has been transferred to the stage in a most dazzling form, says Kate Houghton. Five stars!

Lily with Oona
Credit, Dan TsantilisLily with Oona Credit, Dan Tsantilis

Adapted by Samuel Adamson, the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, Running Wild, is a heart-string tugging tale of a small girl who, after losing her army father to a roadside bomb in Iraq, is taken to her mother’s home country of Indonesia for a holiday and in a tragic twist of fate is caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

Lily is just nine years old when this happens, and her life is saved by an elephant, upon whose back Lily is sitting as the tsunami strikes – something the elephant has sensed and fled from, into the tree-clad hills behind the beach, where they meet the natural denizens of the rainforest.

Tiger (with Darcy Collins, Corinna Powlesland and Stephen Hoo)
Credit: Dan TsantilisTiger (with Darcy Collins, Corinna Powlesland and Stephen Hoo) Credit: Dan Tsantilis

All the animals in this tale are represented by puppets, and brilliantly so. We should expect no less of course from the puppeteers behind War Horse, with whom Morpurgo has once again partnered. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié have devised an elephant, orang utans and a tiger and for each one the facility to convey emotion and the sheer brilliance of the way the puppeteers move exactly as the real animal moves is breathtaking and each one is quite capable of stealing the show – if it were not for the vivacity and talent of the young actress who played Lily, Jemima Bennett. It’s a huge role by any standards and marvellously done.

Lily and her elephant, Oona, meet and befriend a family of orang utans, battle a tiger (which Lily declares to be utterly beautiful, having no bitterness for its attempt on her life) flee from a crocodile and are delighted by fire flies. She learns to pick fruit and catch fish – she has all she needs to survive. They then meet the wicked poacher and burner of rainforest, Mr Anthony, who steals baby apes from their mothers and rips down the rainforest to plant palm oil trees. His tirade about how we happily eat Nutella, buy shampoo, toothpaste and all sorts of lotions and potions made using palm oil hits home hard, and is supported by his attitude towards the wildlife the rainforests support – all their to make his fortune and no more.

India Brown as Lilly with Frank, the baby orangutan
Credit Dan TsantilisIndia Brown as Lilly with Frank, the baby orangutan Credit Dan Tsantilis

As an adult, we might argue that Morpurgo is being a little heavy-handed with his message here, but that would be a little unfair – this tale is aimed at children, of course, and children aren’t known for their subtlety or for their ability to pick up on subtle messages. And judging by the state of the natural world Morpurgo so cherishes, nor are we adults.

The message is clear and aimed squarely at our children’s hearts: stop destroying our rainforests. Stop the slash and burn, curb the increasing reliance on palm oil, respect the wildlife these irreplaceable habitats support. It’s hammered home hard, but it’s having the desired effect – I have now been ordered by my ten-year-old to adopt an orang utan (to accompany our tiger, snow leopard and penguin) and never buy Nutella again. You know what? I can agree to that.

I asked my son his opinion as we left the theatre. “Brilliant,” he said, clutching his programme. “It is on again tomorrow?”

Running Wild run till 22 April

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