India Brown as Lily with Oona the Elephant – photos Dan Tsantilis 
As you read this review you may fancy a little snack. A biscuit, maybe. Perhaps even with a dab of peanut butter on it. Then you might give your hands a quick wash with that rather nice liquid soap that was a bargain at your supermarket. The chances are that each will contain palm oil, that ubiquitous wonder ingredient. Hold that thought.
Good writing for children takes the toughest of themes and talks in the language that children use, often with a frankness startling to adult sensibilities. Amongst chidren’s authors there are none better than Michael Morpurgo, the writer of Running Wild. Morpurgo’s vivid tales make fine theatre, as the famous ‘War Horse’ production proved, and Running Wild confirms.
This is gripping theatre from the very start as we follow the adventures of nine year old Lily through struggles and challenges more dramatic than most of us would face in a lifetime. Lily loves nature, and was brought up with Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories as her Mother’s bedtime reading to her. Lily’s Mum was born in Indonesia, while her Dad who has ignited her passions as a Chelsea FC fan is a soldier off to serve a final spell of duty in Iraq.
With her Dad gone Lily’s grandma suggests Lily and her Mum take a trip to Indonesia, to see the elephants that Lily is so enchanted by. Lily takes a ride on an elephant while Mum goes for a swim in the sea. But the elephant is troubled, and turns away from her Mahout and the beach run to head for the rain forest jungle. We soon see that the elephant’s fears were justified as a tsunami hits the beach.
Lily and Oona the elephant soon become firm friends, and help each other in a jungle adventure full of peril and drama. They meet friendly orangutans and a rather less friendly tiger, the king of the jungle. But the most deadly peril comes from mankind, and more urgently from hunters and landowners clearing the native jungle to build palm oil plantations.
The shining star of this energetic and passionate production is Lily, played with perfect balance tonight by India Brown, who shares the role on tour with Jemima Bennett and Annika Whiston. Lily is on stage for almost the whole show and it is a big ask for a young performer but India captivates the audience throughout. Her Chelsea fan Dad is played by Kazeem Tosin Amore and her Mum by  Balvinder Sopal and her Grandma by Liz Crowther. These three give Lily their love and warmth as best they can, but each seem to be chasing rather than leading this determined youngster.

India Brown as Lily with Frank

This play is Lily’s story, but at the heart of it is another strong character – Oona the elephant. Oona is a life-size articulated puppet, who needs four humans to bring her to life, but we soon forget that she is not a real creature. She is joined by a tiger and a whole family of orangutans who face tragedy and perils just as Lily does, who takes a lost young orang-utan under her wing and promptly calls him Frank Lampard. Oona gives this show its magic, with an appropriately elephant-sized stage presence and heart. 

Before the show we caught up with Oona as she took a stroll round Chapelfield Gardens looking for elephant snacks and greeting startled passers by. Read more here:
This is a heartwarming and exciting play for children of all ages. There are moments where you may struggle to hold back your tears as we see Lily face unbeatable threats and dangers fearlessly and with courage and confidence. You will also get angry at the way that we have allowed ourselves to be complicit in destroying beautiful creatures and their habitat. After this show you will be looking at the small print on a few labels at home and in the shops, I am sure. Palm oil is hard to avoid. We should.
But don’t let the message put you off this delightful play. If you can, take a child or two with you and when they drive you mad one day running wild, just remember that they are just learning to escape the tigers and ride an elephant. This story is based on real events, so those skills could save their lives one day!
Running Wild, Tuesday to Saturday, April 25-29, 2017. Tues, Wed, Fri & Sat 7.30pm, Wed & Sat 2.30pm, Thur 11am. Tickets £7-£21. BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over 60s, Under 18s, Schools and Groups. Audio Described Performance and Signed Performance Sat April 29, 2.30pm. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE
©Julian Swainson