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Running Wild (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

Michael Morpurgo's novel is adapted for the stage by Samuel Adamson

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Michael Morpurgo began writing when he was a primary school teacher, and his acute sense of what matters to children, and their natural affinity with animals, has made him a spectacularly successful author.

Adapted for the stage by Samuel Adamson, Morpurgo's Running Wild tells the story of Lilly, a child whose experiences address huge issues such the Iraq war, the Indian ocean tsunami, and the wholesale destruction of Indonesian forests in favour of planting for palm oil. The scale of these themes is reflected in Paul Wills's majestic revolving set, grounded in a wooden stage of carved Indonesian patterns and with a jungle towering almost as high as the trees that surround the open-air theatre.

This absorbing visual feast gradually develops from a lost-in-the-jungle survival story into a morality tale that pitches a brave child against murderous poachers intent on killing endangered wildlife for profit.

These animals, all magnificent life-size puppets designed by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, are played with tender warmth and humour by their 'handlers', with Oona the elephant exuding charm and courage, as well as demonstrating a serious farting habit. There's menace from a tiger and crocodile, but it's the orangutan clan which has an immediate appeal. After a rather slow build in the first half, it's the orangutans' fate that drives the action in the mile-a-minute second half, which explodes with special effects and excellent lighting design from Paul Anderson.

Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks have assembled an impressive ensemble of youngsters from the local community, who throw themselves into the show with obvious commitment. There is a passionate, outstanding performance from Ava Potter as Lilly, who faces unbearable losses as well as mortal danger. To play the lead and sustain a full-length show in the way that Potter does here is an extraordinary achievement.

Hattie Ladbury as Mum, and Joyce Henderson and Eric Mallett as Granny and Grandad offer solid support. Ira Mandela Siobhan is touchingly tender in the heartbreaking role of Dad. On the baddies' side, we have the poaching kingpin Mr Anthony, played with chilling arrogance and swagger by Stephen Ventura, and the brutal Red Bandana (Okori Chukwu), a man you really wouldn't want to mess with.

The moral - that we should look to our packaging and choose only products that use sustainable palm oil - is hammered home, but it's a message that needs to be taken on board by all of us.

After this show, you won't look at your palm-oil guzzling shampoo, soap, pizzas or chips in the same way again.

And take a hankie. You'll need it.

Running Wild runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 12 June.

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