Oona the Elephant greets her Magdalen Gates fans at the stage door – photos  ©The Eye Snapper


RUNNING WILD – APRIL 25-29, 2017


Anyone strolling through Chapelfield Gardens yesterday afternoon was in for an elephant-sized surprise as Oona the Elephant went walkabout after greeting young fans at Norwich Theatre Royal’s stage door. Stepping out to meet a group of pupils from Magdalen Gates Oona walked into the Gardens with her new young friends to see if there were any elephant-sized snacks on offer.

Oona is marvellous life-size articulated puppet Asian Elephant who plays a starring role in Michael Morpurgo’s modern-day  ‘Jungle Book’ story set to capture hearts at the Theatre this week.

Oona the elephant makes friends

A modern-day ‘Jungle Book’ story, Running Wild tells of a young girl swept into the Indonesian rainforest by a tsunami and befriended by the animals. After wowing audiences in the Open Air Theatre at London’s Regent’s Park last summer, this emotional and life-affirming story is now touring across the country as a stage show and arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal from April 25-29.

Adapted from a children’s book written by former children’s laureate and War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, and originally presented as a youth theatre promenade piece at Chichester Festival Theatre where it won a prestigious UK Theatre Award, it is based on a true story and features spectacular and realistic life-size puppets of an Asian elephant , orangutans and a tiger.

This first UK tour of the production is presented by Children’s Touring Partnership (CTF) which has previously brought to Norwich shows such as Goodnight Mister Tom, Swallows and Amazons and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Running Wild was adapted for the stage by Australian playwright and screenwriter Samuel Adamson and co-directed by CFT’s education director Dale Rooks and artistic director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Timothy Sheader. The award-winning production with its emotional and moving story of love, loss and loyalty and of living for the moment, has been described by critics as ‘inspiring’, ‘evocative’, ‘imaginative’ and ‘life-affirming’.

Its tale follows Lilly who, while on holiday with her mother in Indonesia, takes an elephant ride. During the ride, Oona, the elephant, suddenly becomes anxious and runs from the beach deep into the jungle. With Lilly on her back, they escape moments before the tsunami hits the island.

Miles from civilisation, at first there’s wonder, discovery and tree-top adventures with the orangutans, but, as thoughts turn to her mother left behind on the beach, and wild tigers prowl, and hunger hits, Lilly must now learn to survive the rainforest. And then the hunters come…

The lead role of Lilly will be shared on the tour by three young actresses, Jemima Bennett, India Brown and Annika Whiston. Lilly’s grandmother will be play by Liz Crowther, daughter of the legendary children’s television entertainer and Crackerjack presenter Leslie Crowther; while the role of Lilly’s father is taken by Kazeem Toisin Amore, Dr Geraldine by Corinna Powlesland, Mr Anthony by Jack Sandle and Lilly’s mother will be played by Balvinder Sopal. The Mahout and Kaya will be played by Stephen Hoo.

The life-size puppets of the jungle animals will win over audience hearts and they are played by puppeteers Darcy Collins (Frank, the baby orangutan), Romina Hytten (orangutan Mani Head), Fred Davis (Mani Body), Elisa de Grey (elephant Oona Trunk), James Charlton (Oona Head), Michael Peters (Oona Heart), and Wela Mbusi (Oona Hind), with Gareth Aled and Scarlet Wilderink as alternate puppeteers.

Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write his book by the real-life story of Amber Owen, who was on holiday in Phuket 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. When the author read of Amber’s story, he said it was “the one bit of hope amid the destruction”.

“All we had on our televisions were accounts of more deaths and grieving. You almost didn’t want to look at it anymore and it was almost too difficult for everyone to take it in.” He said the stage show has now added “another dimension” to his book and he loved “what this play has done with my story.”

The author is also thrilled that the inspired design and direction for the puppets of the jungle animals in the show is Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié for Gyre & Gimble, both previous Associate Puppetry Directors on War Horse, the hugely successful dramatization of another of his books.

One of his hopes is that the story on stage will make children ask questions and go away to find out more about what is happening in the rainforests, how human demand for palm oil is leading to the destruction of forest habitats, how many tigers there are left in the wild and how many elephants there 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.”

The production will be working during the tour to support the Born Free Foundation’s global elephant conservation projects. Lifelong passionate wildlife campaigner and actress Virginia McKenna is a friend of Michael Morpurgo and said the charity, which was started following the death of an elephant at London Zoo, was “honoured to be part of this wonderful play with its fantastic animated elephant and all the orangutans and all the other creatures – it is a veritable feast of wildlife.”

“We started our charity at first solely looking into the issues of wild animals in captivity which is still at the heart of most of what we do, although we do animals in the wild as well now. In Sri Lanka, we have an elephant rescue centre where orphaned baby elephants are reared in groups and then returned to the wild.”

The UK Tour of Running Wild has received Arts Council funding.


Read the Norwich Eye review of the show here: https://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/norwich-eye-review-running-wild-at-the-theatre-royal/

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 www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

Oona and her friends looking for snacks in Chapelfield Gardens