Review: The Butterfly Lion (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

Michael Morpurgo’s tale between man and beast comes to life this autumn

Adam Buchanan in The Butterfly Lion
Adam Buchanan in The Butterfly Lion
© Manuel Harlan

Chichester's plucky little Minerva Theatre often surprises in its ability to tell epic stories on an intimate scale. That's never been truer than with this new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's The Butterfly Lion.

Morpurgo himself is used as a character device to top and tail the piece, describing how he has run away from his unhappy boarding school environment and how he uses his imagination to escape and make his world a better one. His headmaster yells at him that he won't amount to much if he doesn't get his head out of the clouds. If those clouds are what led to him writing these wonderful tales, then I'm certainly glad it's where his head stayed.

The story follows Bertie, a boy from South Africa that adopts and raises a rare, white orphaned lion cub. When Bertie is told by his parents that he must leave South Africa for England and that the lion cub must be sold, he promises to find his closest friend again one day. As Bertie grows up, falls in love and then goes to war it is a reunion with his lion friend that we are all rooting for. To say if he gets it would be revealing too much but suffice to say there are emotional reunions and heartbreaking moments aplenty.

Dale Rooks' production is both technically advanced and theatrically simple in its approach but at all times lets the storytelling take the lead. Designer Simon Higlett has created a beautiful canvas onto which Simon Wainwright's gorgeous video designs can be projected, like a glorious colour wash being painted before our eyes. Stunning transformations – from stuffy boarding school to the veld of South Africa – have an artistry about them that is a visual treat.

As with the previous Morpurgo big hitter War Horse, it is puppetry that helps to bring the magic of his writing to life. Nick Barnes has created some ingenious animal creations that without the help of Kane Husbands' nicely observed movement direction could be weirdly abstract in their vision – instead a dog is easily brought to life with the use of just a head and a tail. Other animals of the savannah are unassumingly and effectively realised by the plainly dressed company through simple movement alone.

Archie Elliot's young Bertie is a wonderfully heartfelt performance, as is Ruari Finnegan as the young Morpurgo. Narration is charmingly provided by Nicole Sloane's warm and embracing Millie, quietly reminiscing about her love, loss and dreams. Her younger self is equally as appealing in the hands of Claudia Jolly.

The final message of keeping memories alive and ensuring stories aren't lost in time is hammered home a little too hard and there were certainly some fidgeting young audience members by this time, but otherwise this is an utterly charming show that is both epic in ambition and captivating in the telling.