This fairy-lit stage in Regent’s Park is one of the prettiest theatres in the world, and deserves to be on everyone’s summer night bucket list. It’s also given thousands of London kids their first intro to theatre. This year’s family-friendly season opener is based on a conservationist novel by ubiquitous kids writer Michael Morpurgo, AKA the social conscience of our tweenage nation. It’s a crowdpleaser, mainly thanks to inspiring and energetic staging, namely some amazing puppet animals: an elephant, a tiger and a whole buffoonery of orangutangs (that’s their official collective noun and they live up to it). They’re brought to beautifully articulated life by worldclass ‘War Horse’ puppeteers Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié and, as you’d expect from these guys, they’re so lifelike they could have escaped from nearby London Zoo.
Other aspects of Morpurgo’s novel don’t adapt brilliantly – reading a book and watching a drama are very different experiences and this makes an action-packed but slightly preachy play. It’s about a girl called Lill (or a boy called Will, depending which night you go). Lill loses not one but two parents in consecutive violent accidents which exemplify humanity’s destructive relationship with the planet (her dad drives over a bomb while soldiering in Iraq; her mum goes swimming in an Indonesian tsunami). Personally, I could have done with less of the misery setup and more of the exciting bit where Lill lives wild in the Indonesian jungle, like a modern Mowgli, cared for by a friendly elephant and fighting off the true predators: not tigers but poachers, burning and shooting everything to service humanity’s lust for palm oil, and Shere Khan rugs.
This story has not one but a whole interconnected series of Points To Make about everything from shampoo production to orangutang conservation: good for the post-show discussion; less good for the show. But it’s got plenty of imagination and drive and is never boring or less than enjoyable. Ava Potter holds it together with a hugely gutsy, sympathetic performance as Lilly. It’s a bold move to try to create a jungle atmosphere on an open air stage in a distinctly non-tropical London wood. And the creative team pulls it off, with some nifty use of textiles and a fantastic ensemble of school kids yawping, drumming, thumping and tsunami-ing their hearts out.
As for the animals, they are a joy to watch as they lumber, prowl and knuckle across the stage, operated by groups of puppeteers controlling their heads, legs and – in true ‘War Horse’ style – their hearts. Sadly – or maybe happily, given the arguments this story makes for life in the wild – there aren’t any elephants in London zoo. ‘Running Wild’s full sized puppet elephant is not only the absolute star of the show. It’s also – housing market metaphors aside – the closest most of us will ever come to experiencing the jungle in London.