A junkyard set and a stage full of people in nondescript grey hoodies, tapping their chests, conjuring a kingfisher flying overhead. From this opening moment, it is clear that Running Wild is set to adopt a style far from cinematic realism as it transports the audience to the Indonesian rainforest.
The play centres around Lilly, played by Annika Whiston on opening night, a young English girl dealing with grief and upheaval, compounded with the tragic events of the 2004 tsunami. But the storytelling, whilst heartfelt, is really just a backbone to support a plethora of theatrically spectacular moments.
The puppets that have become synonymous with Michael Morpurgo’s theatrical work truly steal the show. Oona the elephant is, understandably, a dominating presence, made loveable largely by Elisa de Grey’s impeccable control of her trunk. For me, the orang-utans were the most true to life of all the animals, with every motion and each swing meticulous. Darcy Collins, controlling the playful youngest orang-utan ‘Frank’ (as well as a particularly notable, although nameless, ‘fish eating kelp’) stands out, ironically, by disappearing; she becomes one with her puppet, injecting the animal with all of her lively energy.
Beyond the puppetry, the show presents striking moments of high drama, conveyed through stylised physicality. The tsunami sequence is wonderfully high-energy, with impassioned drumming, balletic choreography and a set that becomes a wave. The fire in act two conjures a similar level of intensity, yet with an entirely different atmosphere; less surprise and confusion, more subdued, sinister concentration. These moments that draw together all of the theatrical skills available are real highlights; unfortunately they are cut a little short.
Necessarily punctuating the scenes of great spectacle are brief moments of story-telling dialogue to clarify the narrative. In a play of this length, aimed at children, it is understandable that the script is somewhat abrupt, simplistic and intended to further plot rather than emotional development. Condensing the rich story into such a short play forced some relationships into basic, representative moments, such as that between Lilly and her dad at the top of the show. Similarly, ghostly moments of interaction with slow motion characters labour some points a little far for my taste; but they do create a more varied physical picture and are no doubt invaluable to younger audience members.
Twelve-year-old Annika Whiston, in the lead role, takes on the challenging workload with clarity and apparent ease. She holds the audience’s attention impressively, especially considering how much of the show is reliant on just her and Oona onstage. Beyond annunciating plot points, Whiston shares some touching moments with animals and people alike; for example, in her relationship with her grandma. Grandma/ Rebecca, played by Liz Crowther, balances tough emotional conviction with wonderful glimpses of comedy. Conversely, Jack Sandle plays the villain, Mr Anthony, with apt viciousness, adding a truly dark undertone to the colourful tale.
While these characters are easily pinpointed for their consistent roles in the piece, Running Wild is defined by the ensemble as a whole. We honestly sat in the interval discussing how impressed we were by a swaying fig tree! The cast are a collective triumph, surrounding the child star with support, impeccably creating the required atmosphere and setting from some of the most unlikely, unconventional props.
This production is a champion of diversity and spectacle. Differences are easily overlooked as the company work seamlessly together. At curtain call I couldn’t believe how few people were onstage; thus the multi-roling must be exhausting, but is successfully achieved without fault (and often without the audience even noticing!)
Impressive for theatre-lovers, endearing for animal-lovers and accessible for children, Running Wild balances a remarkable workload impeccably. At 90 minutes (plus interval) I only wish there was more of it!
Catch Running Wild at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 15th April.