Running Wild Reviewed: A Real Summer Treat

Running Wild, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 97 months ago

Last Updated 21 May 2016

Running Wild Reviewed: A Real Summer Treat Running Wild, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre 4
Ava Potter as Lilly and Oona the Elephant © Johan Persson
Ava Potter as Lilly and Oona the Elephant © Johan Persson

Michael Morpurgo is best known today as the author of War Horse, which became a major hit for the National Theatre when it was converted into a play. He has, however, written numerous novels, and Running Wild is one specifically aimed at children. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre now presents this stage adaptation by Samuel Adamson and it could prove to be the perfect summer treat for youngsters.  

Set in 2004 the story tells of a girl Lilly (or boy Will depending on the night you attend) whose father was killed in Iraq. Her mother subsequently takes her to Indonesia for Christmas, but is killed in the terrible tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day. Lilly escapes it, however, because she was riding the elephant Oona at the time who sensed the wave coming and suddenly bolted for higher ground. Stranded in the jungle alone, Lilly establishes a close friendship with Oona, who helps her to reach figs on the trees to eat. She also befriends some orang-utans, but things go awry when poachers kill the parents and kidnap the children along with Lilly.

They manage to escape but only after seeing how mankind destroys the natural world for skin, oil, pets and profit. As a result, even when Lilly’s grandparents manage to track her down, she decides to stay in the jungle with Oona, making it her mission to help the conservationist she has just met protect the animals and environment.

Although the story has a pleasing sense of morality, the evening is made by the stunning visual effects. All of the animals are played by puppets with Oona being operated by four people. As with the horses in War Horse the entire body is not portrayed but rather parts are cut away, thus heightening our interest by helping us to see some of the mechanics that underpin the operation. The trunk is a series of rings with a connecting ‘thread’, enabling it to coil in many ways. The legs and neck are absent but the correct spacing is maintained between the various parts of the body so that the creature remains anatomically accurate. The ears are simply cloth so that they look fragile and can be flicked realistically, while the comment that there are touches of pink in the elephant’s skin is also captured in the puppet.

A tiger is portrayed with a body that is divided into segments like the elephant’s trunk, thus ensuring it can execute some supple leaps. The orang-utans are shown with long arms, which enables them to swing between the ‘trees’, but no legs, which would simply complicate the movement and make the visual effect less impressive. The stage is surrounded by tall bamboo canes that help to frame the action and create the impression of a dense jungle, while the tsunami is portrayed very effectively through relatively low-tech means. The ensemble of adults and children bring a dynamism to the evening with their movement, and also contribute some of the sound effects.

The cast is superb with particular accolades going to Ava Potter who plays Lilly (the child role is shared between three actors across the run with two of them being boys). Children will instantly warm to this show, as should those adults accompanying little ones as part of a family. For grown-ups thinking of attending alone, however, the level of enjoyment is likely to depend on how much one is able to put aside the somewhat basic plot, which may not necessarily succeed in sustaining interest, and simply delight in all of the visual effects.      

Until 12 June at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4NU. For tickets (£25-60) call 0844 826 4242 or visit the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.