It is not often you find a large elephant becoming the star of the show but this is certainly the case with Timothy Sheader and Dale Rook's delightful production of Running Wild, adapted by Samuel Adamson from Michael Morpurgo's 2009 children's novel and staged in the ideal surroundings of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park.
For Will going to Indonesia isn't just another holiday with mum. It's a new start after the death of his soldier father and the chance to ride an elephant called Oona. But the tsunami hit. Charging deep into the jungle, Oona escapes the beach with her young rider desperately clinging on. Miles from civilisation at first there's wonder, discovery and tree-top adventures among the orang-utans. But, as thoughts turn to mum left behind on the beach, tigers prowl, hunger hits and Will must learn to survive the rainforest. Then come the hunters …
This is a story of love, loss, loyalty and living in the moment which is refreshingly free of mawkishness or sentimentality. Morpurgo's message about deforestation for palm oil harvesting and the imminent extinction of numerous species is a topical one and powerfully conveyed without appearing didactic, while the emotional core of the story survives intact in the transposition from page to stage.
A large young people's ensemble play the devastating giant wave with aplomb and there is an engaging central performance by Joshua Fernandes (who alternates with Tyler Osborne and Ava Potter) as Will, a boy who turns personal disaster into animal magic.
But there is no doubt the centrepiece of the production is the magnificent animal puppetry by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie for Gyre & Gimble which even out does War Horse for sheer inventiveness. The lifesize animals are the real draw and include cute baby orang-utans, a stealthy crocodile, giant butterflies and of course, Oona herself who requires a cast of four to manipulate her. Indeed, it is this noble, articulated and life-size creature who really captures our hearts, with the result that we can unreservedly believe in Oona's bond with Will.
Great family entertainment!
Runs at the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park until June 12, 2016
Box office: 0844 826 4242Last modified: June 3, 2016