REVIEW: RUNNING WILD (Hackney Empire) ★★★★

Running Wild Hackney Empire

Running Wild is based on a story by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Samuel Adamson and originally produced by Chichester Festival Theatre and Regent’s Park Theatre. The show wowed audiences at Regent’s Park Theatre last summer and comes to Hackney Empire for a short run on its UK tour.

Inspired by true events during the Boxing Day tsunami, the book was written in 2009 by the former children’s laureate and author of War Horse. A young girl was on an elephant ride on the beach when she noticed it pulling away from the sea; he ran away with her on his back as the wave hit and saved her life. Morpurgo saw this as some hope amid the destruction of the tsunami which hit South East Asia in 2004.

In Running Wild, Morpurgo imagines Lilly, on holiday with her mother in Indonesia following the death of her father, taken by an elephant deep into the rain forest where she meets orangutans, a crocodile, birds, butterflies and a tiger, as well as the hunters. This production brings the story to life with spectacular life-size puppets and pulls at the heartstrings as Lilly comes to realise the threats to the animals’ home as she comes to terms with being alone in the world.

The lead role of Lilly is shared by three young actresses. India Brown took the role on press night and was a delight to watch, her engagement with the animal puppets was very natural and she carried the story with ease. The human characters are great but the real stars of this show are the puppets and their skilful puppeteers. Oona the elephant is manipulated by four puppeteers who move her around the stage with grace in contrast to the high energy orangutans.

The puppetry design and direction is by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, both previous Associate Puppetry Directors on War Horse, and movement direction by Georgina Lamb. Fans of puppets will not be disappointed here. The cast make a wonderful job of creating the Indonesian world through sound, song and choreography. The depiction of the tsunami is one wonderful visual moment among many. Some of the storytelling is a little slow towards the end and dwells on the environmental issues of poaching and palm oil at the expense of Lilly’s grief but overall this is a great show for adults and older children that will melt even cynical hearts.

Reviewed by Rhiannon Evans

Running Wild plays at Hackney Empire until 25 March 2017