Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild comes to the Hackney Empire

India Brown as Lilly with Frank, Baby Orangutan. Picture: Dan Tsantilis

India Brown as Lilly with Frank, Baby Orangutan. Picture: Dan Tsantilis - Credit: Archant

Running Wild returns, bigger and better than before. Zoe Paskett hears the story behind it from author Michael Morpurgo and the creative team

Running Wild. Picture: Dan Tsantilis

Running Wild. Picture: Dan Tsantilis - Credit: Archant

The tsunami in 2004 killed around a quarter of a million people and had an immense and lasting impact on both the lives of survivors and the environment.

One survivor, a young girl who was on holiday in Phuket with her parents, has an extraordinary story, which inadvertently inspired a book by one of our best loved children’s authors.

“It was one of the worst natural disasters in many of our lifetimes,” says Michael Morpurgo, writer of Kensuke’s Kingdom and War Horse.

“All we had in our TVs and newspapers were accounts of terrible suffering and grieving. You almost didn’t want to look anymore or read anymore, it was too difficult for everyone to take in.

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“And then there was this one story in a newspaper which I read about an English child, a boy, I thought, and his family.”

As soon as he read the story, he was inspired to write Running Wild, the tale of a boy who is swept off on the back of a frightened elephant trying to escape the wave.

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He found out later that he had mistaken the details of the article and it was actually a girl named Amber Owen, who the lead character of Lilly portrays, but the premise of the tale is true:

“It was a great long beach and the sea was still, it was one of those marvellous days. Something very strange happened. The sea seemed to be disappearing into itself. The elephant of course understood something much more significant than the boy understood and began to panic, and knew that all she wanted to do was get away.

Writer Michael Morpurgo. Picture: Tom WIlkinson

Writer Michael Morpurgo. Picture: Tom WIlkinson - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

“She broke away from the handler, and raced up the beach and into the jungle and just kept going and meanwhile behind them the sea had receded and a great wave was coming in, a wall of water.

“As this was happening the people had no idea what it was. There were little kids fishing, running out onto the sand, picking up the fish. And of course the wave came in and did its terrible destruction.”

In reality, Amber was discovered by her frantic mother, but Morpurgo imagined what may have happened when the child was alone with the elephant in the jungle.

Enamoured in his youth by Rudyard Kipling and, in particular, The Elephant’s Child, he had found himself previously unable to write anything to compete with it.

“Once someone has written a story as wonderful as that, it’s then very difficult to write another story about an elephant – it’s just too good. So I avoided writing anything about elephants.

“He did another thing that the best writers do which is to block the way for other writers to follow and he wrote a book called The Jungle Book – you may have heard of it.

“I thought, well stuff you, Kipling, I’m going to write this story about an elephant and I’m going to write my own Jungle Book. That was really what I did.”

It’s a good thing he did, because it became the project of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre artistic director and Chichester Festival Theatre director Dale Rooks, who decided to adapt it into a stage play adapted by Sam Adamson.

Frank, baby Orangutan and Mani (with Darcy Collins, Fred Davis and Romina Hytten). Picture: Dan Ts

Frank, baby Orangutan and Mani (with Darcy Collins, Fred Davis and Romina Hytten). Picture: Dan Tsantilis - Credit: Archant

“When I had a meeting with Dale, it was one of those moments when I thought this was just completely insane,” says Adamson. “The central character is an elephant, so there’s going to be puppetry. There was no way I could say no.”

Morpurgo is no stranger to puppets, having seen the star of his masterpiece, War Horse, translated to the stage this way.

Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell, two puppeteers from this production on the West End set up their own company, Gyre & Gimble, which created all of the animals for Running Wild.

“You get asked to do amazing fantastic things and I’m a big fan of puppetry needing to be on stage, and not being there as a gimmick,” says Olié, standing in front of Oona the elephant, as she trumpets loudly and shakes her head.

He says that they didn’t try to make puppets that are “massively naturalistic”, though they breathe and interact with their surroundings in an incredibly realistic way. The puppeteers operating the animals in the production are visible too and are as much a part of the puppet as the materials that made it.

“What’s been hugely gratifying and very exciting is that the project keeps reinventing itself,” says Adamson. “It’s been a wonderful journey for all of us.”

Running Wild’s portrayal of the relationships between humans and animals led them to partner up with the Born Free Foundation. Started by Virginia McKenna after starring in Born Free, she says the foundation “works to try to inspire people to care about animals, particularly in this case elephants: how deprived they are in captivity, how they suffer when they’re not in a family group because they’re just loving family creatures. We exploit them in many different ways.

“We work seriously to try to prevent that continuing. But it’s a hard battle.

India Brown as Lilly with Oona. Picture: Dan Tsantilis

India Brown as Lilly with Oona. Picture: Dan Tsantilis - Credit: Archant

“Even if you change the view of one person when this theatre is filled, you’ve achieved something. That’s what matters. So we’re so honoured to be part of this wonderful play.”

Morpurgo adds: “What they’ve done with it is something extraordinary.”

Running Wild is at the Hackney Empire March 22 to 25. Tickets start £10, hackneyempire.co.uk

Running Wild Rehearsal. Picture: Marcos Bevilacqua

Running Wild Rehearsal. Picture: Marcos Bevilacqua - Credit: Archant

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