It’s a genuine pleasure when one comes across that rare non-comedic stage work which provides an equal amount of entertainment for adults and young children alike – and King’s Theatre’s current production of Running Wild, based on Michael Morpurgo’s 2009 novel of the same name, ticks all of these boxes. It treats its young audience just as seriously as its older one, neither flinching nor shying away from the harshness of reality, whilst remaining open and accessible to children as young as its advertised 6+.
As with the majority of the former Children’s Laureate’s best-known works, the story here is placed within the firm context of historical events. The original novel’s protagonist, Will, is here rechristened Lilly, a decision partly made during the show’s original run, in which Will and Lilly featured on alternating nights. Her father having recently died in the Iraq War, Lilly finds herself brutally orphaned by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, subsequently fending for herself amidst the forests of Indonesia.
With the majority of its advance press unsurprisingly drawing comparisons with War Horse, it’s clear that the stagecraft here is intended to be as much an attraction as the more traditional performances. And, while there is at times an episodic quality to the various travelling interludes that come in the form of a school of fish or a flock of birds, these are well-earned excuses to show off the talents at work here, and the technique brought to bear is more than enough to forgive any sense of the showcase.
While Running Wild does slightly stretch credulity in putting its protagonist through a seemingly endless series of unfortunate events, its particular weak point is perhaps its take on geopolitics. Yet, even if a majority of adults may feel as if repeated points about the environmental impact of palm oil production are being somewhat hammered home, these will likely leave a more indelible mark on younger audience members – and, perhaps, not a few older ones as well.
Though the subject matter is occasionally bleak, and Lilly’s various perils are never anything but deeply and emphatically felt, the balance with which they are presented is always so deft as to leave no concern over anyone leaving the theatre either traumatised or patronised. Indeed, after it was over, I overheard one new fan patiently recapping the plot to her grandfather, enthusiastically recalling various developments in intricate detail. He wasn’t paying much attention; she didn’t seem to notice: enraptured, she was living Lilly’s story all over again.
Photos courtesy of Dan Tsantilis.
Running Wild is at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday 6th May.