Transportive is a great word in theatre. This is more than good set design – it’s ensuring that every technical molecule of a production works in harmony to capture the spirit of a locale. In Running Wild’s case, the first show of the Summer season over at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, this also accounts for tremendous puppetry. Landing us slap bang in the middle of the Indonesian jungle, this is a extraordinarily theatrical show, that makes great entertainment for children.
Samuel Adamson’s script, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 2009 novel, is The Jungle Book meets Kensuke’s Kingdom. Our story follows Will (Joshua Fernandes), an English boy separated from his mother (Hattie Ladbury) by the 2004 Tsunami, his life saved by the elephant he was riding at the time, called Oona. The pair must stick together to survive the dangers of the jungle – tigers, alligators and poachers, led by the evil Mr Anthony (Stephen Ventura). The story is as thrilling as it sounds, with some very powerful moments. In fact, some of the themes may be quite distressing for very small children – there’s a fair amount of bloodshed at times. Fernandes does a stellar job as our eyes and ears of the jungle, and he’s actually very funny in places. The worry is Will could become too precocious, but Fernandes balances his character just right – he should be applauded. The dialogue can be a little hokey, and characters outside of Will are barely realised, but it’s an entertaining romp all the way through.
The story has been imaginatively created by Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks, using light and movement to create some truly breathtaking, completely immersive spectacles. The tsunami waves that literally come crashing over the audience start beautifully, but become terrifying with the realisation of their power. A fire in the jungle crackles beneath your feet, as smoke billows from the surrounding trees; you can almost feel the warmth on the back of your neck. Props to Nick Lidster for creating the best sound design I’ve heard this year – he must be the early favourite to take the Olivier. However, the standout addition is the puppetry. Huge endeavour, astute designs, brilliantly performed, the animals bypass living breathing entities to become the most compelling characters in the show – Oona the Elephant is a sight to behold, and so believable too. In fact, the puppetry rivals that of War Horse, surely the standard in this category, with many of the performers crossing over from that production.
Running Wild is clearly a huge accomplishment, but there are a few minor quibbles with the ensemble that can detract at times. They’re terrific, but sometimes their use feels slightly tenuous. The sheer weight of numbers works a treat with some of the set pieces like the Tsunami, but some sections of group speaking are a little strange, and maybe not quite polished enough to be used just yet. I love the use of bringing in young performers from the community, it’s something every theatre should be aiming to do, but their role here is mostly to stand at the back creating jungle sounds. I appreciate the effort, but you wish these talented youngsters could be given something more creative to do.
Running Wild is perfect children’s entertainment. Clearly a lot of time, energy and passion has gone into this project, and the result can be spellbinding in places, with Oona the Elephant the best stage puppet since Joey the Horse. Take the family and basque in the jungle experience, which teaches young people a very important message on conservation. It’s a great start to the season for Open Air Theatre.
Running Wild is playing Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 12th June. For more information and tickets, see Open Air Theatre website.
Photo: Alastair Muir