Bringing the animals of the jungle to life in the stage show Running Wild
- Credit: DAN TSANTILIS 2017
The bond between a little girl and the elephant that saved her life lies at the heart of the show Running Wild which will see a menagerie of animals descend upon the Norwich Theatre Royal stage next week.
Described as a 'modern-day Jungle Book,' the stage adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo children's novel - inspired by a real-life story - follows the tale of Lilly, who is riding on Oona the elephant when the tsunami hits, and who is whisked to safety by her jumbo friend who runs from the beach deep into the jungle.
Here Lilly discovers a world of wonder and tree-top adventures with orangutans, but the jungle is also a place where wild tigers prowl and hunters pose a threat.
While the role of Lilly is shared by three young actresses in this Children's Touring Partnership production, the animals are brought to life thanks to a team of puppeteers and the ingenious designs and direction of Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell from London-based Gyre and Gimble, who both worked on the world-famous show War Horse, also based on a story by Mr Morpurgo.
Mr Olié described Running Wild as 'a jungle epic which packs an emotional punch,' a show which focusses on Lilly and Oona's friendship and which also carries an important ecological message.
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Among the Gyre and Gimble duo's puppet creations for the show is the amazing life-sized elephant Oona, while others include a group of orangutans and a tiger.
When asked about they went about bringing these characters to the stage, Mr Olié said: 'A big thing with designing puppets is how many hands you have got because that dictates what parts of the puppets can move.
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'With the elephant we knew we had four puppeteers, two in the body, one in the head and one on the trunk.
'We tried stuff out in really rough form first. We had a ladder on people's shoulders and the person in front had a huge cardboard elephant head. You cannot just design a puppet on paper because they are 3D and moving.'
He said watching nature documentaries and going on lots of trips to zoos were also part of the creative process.
'We watched a lot of documentaries, lots of Planet Earth. The big thing for us was finding the emotional indicators...Animals do not have speech and dialogue so all of their communication is in their movements. The movement of the puppets is vital.
'For Oona we use her ears, breath and tail to show her tension and anxiety before the tsunami.'
The finished result with Oona, and with all of the Running Wild puppets, is spectacular, with the animal characters really drawing the audience into the jungle world.
'I think the fact that you know it [the puppet] is not real but as an audience you are invited to fill in the gaps, straight away you are in the story,' said Mr Olié.
'The very nature of puppetry is being asked to suspend your disbelief, it invites audiences into a story on a more subconsious level because they are having to work to make that character alive.
'They are complicit in making the puppet.'
Before Running Wild, Mr Olié and Mr Caldwell both worked as associate puppetry directors on War Horse, the show widely credited with putting contemporary puppetry into the mainstream spotlight.
'I was a puppeteer of Joey the horse, working for the first two versions at the National and moving to the West End. I moved from the back legs into the head,' said Mr Olié.
'From my point of view this [the role of Joey] is like puppet Hamlet because you are playing the central character which drives the plot, you do not leave the stage, it's a real endurance test.
'Finn and I said that is the ethos we want to keep with [for Gyre and Gimble] - puppets not just as special effects but puppets that are essential to being there.'
About the huge success of War Horse, he said: 'It was astonishing to see it growing and its audience expanding and it really being a show which crosses generations...I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.'
He added: 'War Horse is really the empowered beginnings of a bigger journey for puppetry, challenging ourselves with that art form.'
STORY INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE EVENTS
Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write his book Running Wild by the real-life story of Amber Owen, who was on holiday in Phuket, Thailand, with her mother and stepfather in 2004, and enjoying an elephant ride on the beach when the Boxing Day tsunami hit.
The elephant ran inland and saved her life, and Mr Morpurgo described her story as 'the one bit of hope amid the destruction.'
He said the stage show has now added another dimension to his book, and that he hopes the show will make children ask questions about what is happening in the rainforests, how human demand for palm oil is leading to the destruction of forest habitats, and how many tigers and elephants are left in the world.
'It's good they start asking those questions because they are the people who, if it is going to be solved, it's going to be them doing it. So I just want them to go away with that story ringing in their heads,' he said.
The production is also supporting the Born Free Foundation's global elephant conservation projects.
Running Wild is at Norwich Theatre Royal from April 25 to 29.
For more information and to book tickets, visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.