The opener to the Open Air Theatre’s 2016 season is, on paper, a stunner: adapted from a Michael Morpurgo book by Samuel Adamson, featuring puppets by Finn Caldwell, with a strong political message and a cast made up children from the local area. But the result doesn’t match the promise.
It’s a great adventure story: a little boy Will (the night I saw it – but sometimes it’s a little girl, Lilly) is riding a beach elephant when a tsunami hits the coast of Indonesia. The elephant runs deep into the forest, saving Will but forcing him to fend for himself amid wild animals and, even worse, human poachers.
There couldn’t be a better setting for the show than this enclave of Regent’s Park, a miniature arena nestled in the trees that demands an afternoon amble before the show. Real life birds fly overhead and, fittingly, we’re just spitting distance from London Zoo. Staged amid this beautiful green patch, this is a production that has nailed the visuals, from the intricate wooden lattice covering the stage in Indonesian designs to the audience-smothering tsunami made of blue sheets – and, of course, the puppets.
Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, who’ve worked on War Horse, The Lorax, The Light Princess and other successful shows involving puppets, have an eye for the details that can turn lumps of paint and papier mâché into living, loveable creatures. The life-size elephant Oona is the showpiece of the evening, a grand, gorgeous beast who takes Will into a forest populated by cute orang-utans and fearsome crocodiles. Every single puppet moves with real spirit as their arms and legs, their trunks and tails, are manipulated by expert handlers.
This is a children’s show through and through, and while the group of young people who make percussive forest sounds by the side of the stage or cling to tree trunks like watchful jungle creatures lend a vigour and dynamism to the show, thematically it seems to pull some its punches. The theme of grief lurks somewhere under the surface but isn’t really broached. On top of that it’s quite oddly paced, having to rush through a great deal of plot in the first ten minutes, so that it can get full use of the wonderful elephant puppet. But this means skipping lightly over the death of two parents, and seeing Will’s friends Tonk and Charlie on stage for all of a few minutes.
There’s a tussle between wanting the story to play out at a more even pace, wishing the condemnation of deforestation, of palm oil harvesting, of poaching were dealt with in a less crude and shoe-horny way, hoping for a bit more depth of character from this little kid tossed about by fate, and realising that this is for children so maybe that’s asking too much.
Is the young target audience a good enough excuse though? The very best children’s theatre (yes, War Horse) doesn’t shy away from emotional highs and lows at all. Its anti-war sentiment is shown through the story, rather than told – as the whole ‘we use too much palm oil’ thing is here.
Michael Morpurgo has form when it comes to stories about children and animals. This is another winner in many ways, but there are lot of kinks to be worked out first. Its heart is in the right place, and it looks wonderful. But the storytelling needs to be smoothed out.
Running Wild is on until 12th June 2016. For tickets, click here.