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‘Running Wild’ at Regent’s Park: production and puppetry to rival Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’

| Theatre | 12/06/2016

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre
Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

Written by Sandip Kana | @sandipkana

The launch of Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park typically heralds the start of the summer season.  This year it kicked off with Running Wild Samuel Adamson’s stage adaptation of the book of the same name – which is performed for the last time in its present run later today.  

What’s On London was invited to the media night of the play, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also brought us the fantastic and critically-acclaimed War Horse.  And once again Morpurgo pulls at the heartstrings with an extraordinary story of bravery in the face of the greatest of all perils.

The setting for Running Wild is the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean in 2004.  At the heart of the story is a resourceful child and a plethora of noble, loyal animals that come together in the Indonesian rainforest to fight back against humanity’s destruction of their home.

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

If you’re familiar with Morpurgo’s novel, then you’ll know about its distinct similarities with our favourite Disney film, The Jungle Book.  Like Mowgli, Will loses both parents in violent incidents (his father to the Iraq War and his mother to the tsunami) and it falls on Oona – a friendly, loyal and courageous elephant – to care for him.

But this isn’t simply a homage to Kipling: the inspiration behind the story was a newspaper clipping about a child who was taking an elephant ride when the waves hit, and only survived the catastrophe because the elephant charged inland to higher ground.

At the Open Air Theatre, the story is transformed into an extraordinary tale of good versus evil.  But the underlying strengths are undoubtedly the puppets and their masters.

Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks have teamed up with Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie – two of the puppeteers who helped make War Horse into one the National Theatre’s best productions – to bring a whole host of animals to life.  The most extraordinary – the one most likely to send shivers down your spine – is Oona, the elephant; her entrance is one of the production’s stand out moments.

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

Throughout the play, the puppetry is exquisite.  As you sit back and watch the animals lumber, prowl and wander across the stage, you are in awe of the control the puppeteers have over every movement and sound.

Joshua Fernandes also shows that age is no obstacle when it comes to leading a production. Even at his tender age, he has the whole audience eating out of the palm of his hand.

There were also noteworthy performances from Hattie Ladbury as Mum and Ira Siobhan as Dad.

At the heart of the production is a David Attenborough-esque message about the evils of palm oil, and a plea to preserve endangered animals and their rainforest home from poachers.

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

Running Wild © Open Air Theatre

The preservation of the world’s endangered ecosystems may be too complex an issue for the younger members of the audience to fully grasp.  Nevertheless, the evil of head poacher – Mr Anthony – who takes the young Will and baby orangutans prisoner (after shooting the adult orangutans dead) will leave a lasting impact.

Running Wild runs until Sunday June 12 2016.  It is followed at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre by Henry V (17 June to 9 July), Jesus Christ Superstar (15 July to 27 August) and Pride and Prejudice (2-17 September).  For tickets, head to the theatre’s website.

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