My seven year old’s new-found passion for anything Michael Morpurgo took us this week to the grand and magnificent Hackney Empire. There in the heart of the ornate splendour that is Hackney Empire’s auditorium was its complete antithesis: the Running Wild set. While waiting for the highly-anticipated show to start (it played to rave reviews at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last summer), we played I-spy with the appallingly devastated wreckage that creates a picture frame around the stage. There’s displaced personal effects, broken furniture and a variety of lost and damaged debris, immediately creating a feeling of loss and unease.
When heartbreaking circumstances take Lilly and her mum on a soul-searching trip to Indonesia, they set out on the adventure of a lifetime. Lilly starts to smile again as she discovers a new friend in Oona the elephant, taking daily rides on her back down the beach. Then the tsunami hits. Based on a true story, the play follows this strong and spirited girl on her endeavour to survive the bleakest of experiences. The beautiful Oona, who listens with her eyes, isn’t the only animal she encounters, but they are not all as friendly. And then there’s the humans…
The puppetry designers and directors Fin Caldwell and Toby Olie have created unbelievably life-like creatures, and as a result the affinity played out on stage between animals and humans is incredibly affecting. Oona especially is truly breathtaking (like Lilly, my daughter also fell in love with her) and coupled with the most masterly manipulation by the puppeteers that I think I’ll ever see. India Brown, who played the protagonist for our performance, gave a moving portrayal – she was gutsy, determined and gave so much heart to Lilly. The whole cast are very strong and the use of multiple roles is cleverly directed. The scenes with the hunters are fairly tense but it is important to show the barbaric exponents of this particular animal cruelty.
There was a pause during the first half due to technical reasons but nothing was lost in this life-affirming recognition of the bonds that bind humans and animals. It’s a deeply moving, heart-warming tale that makes you want to run wild and live for the moment!
Simone is a trained actress and has worked in the theatre and television. She has also run drama workshops for children. She now teaches in a primary school in East London and regularly enjoys trips to the theatre with her six year old daughter.