Preview:
Running Wild

An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild is inspiring a new generation of conservationists and puppeteers alike

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The magical tales of Michael Morpurgo have provided much source material for the theatre. The acclaimed children’s author writes captivating stories that often share the theme of survival and focus on their characters’ relationship with nature, as demonstrated by Running Wild, which is heading out on nationwide this week.

Following on from the phenomenal success of War Horse, it features the life-sized animal puppets of its predecessor and draws inspiration from The Jungle Book. It is based on the true story of Amber Owen, a young girl saved by the elephant she was riding during the Indonesian tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004.

In the adaptation by Samuel Adamson, Amber is renamed Lilly, who encounters the many dangers of the rain forest on a perilous adventure alongside her long-trunked companion Oona.

Lilly meets several other wild animals on her journey, each expertly manipulated by emerging young talent in puppeteering. Among them is Frank the orangutan, the daughter of Mani, controlled by Darcy Collins, who manages to blend into the background while pulling the strings on stage. “You would think that when seeing someone standing alongside the animal you’d be watching them rather than the beast itself,” says 19-year-old Collins, who was introduced to puppetry as a member of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre.

“But when the puppetry is good you lose the puppeteers after a while and it adds to the magic.”

The puppetry is designed and directed by War Horse’s Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, who became invaluable mentors to their protégés.

“They’re a fountain of knowledge. They helped with those little things that you wouldn’t think about, like how you crouch on the floor in a way that’s going to be least distracting,” says Collins, a graduate of the Curious School of Puppetry in London – where the duo also teach.

“They have a really lovely way of working with you which makes you feel that you’re part of the creative process.”

The cast and crew were visited regularly during rehearsals by Morpurgo. “I remember him coming to a dress rehearsal and giving a really beautiful speech. We were all really moved,” Collins recalls of last summer’s performances at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

“It’s been really lovely working with him. He and his wife cried when they came to see the play.”

Amid the fun and theatrics, Running Wild highlights that the biggest predator in the rain forest is man. To strengthen this message, the production is working in partnership with the Born Free Foundation’s global conservation projects. The charity protects the animals seen in the show within their natural habitat, working with local communities to help people and wildlife live together without conflict.

The collaboration has inspired its young cast to support their cause and they anticipate it having a similar impact on children after watching the performance.

“The show has some beautiful messages within it that everyone can connect with. It really hits hard when you realise how cruelly these animals are treated and how their habitats are being destroyed,” says Collins.

“All of us have completely fallen in love with them. If the next generation grow to love them as well then hopefully we can make a big change.”

Running Wild visits Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield on 7–11 March; Grand Theatre, Blackpool on 4-8 April; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds on 11-15 April and the Lowry, Salford on 18-22 April

Photo: Dan Tsantilis

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