One of the creators of the War Horse puppets admitted that the idea of creating a life-sized elephant for family show Running Wild was a daunting one.
Like War Horse, Running Wild is based on a Michael Morpurgo children’s book. Inspired in part by a real-life story, the show is set in the aftermath of the terrible tsunami that hit Thailand and other countries on Boxing Day 2004.
Being asked to do a show about elephants is fantastically exciting
The show follows Lilly, a girl who is saved by Oona, the elephant she is riding on holiday on the beach, and then has to battle to survive, aided by her new animal friends.
Toby Olié and colleague Finn Caldwell created the life-sized horse puppets for War Horse and they have done the same with the animals that Lilly meets in the jungle.
The duo have directed the animals’ movements, training young actors to be puppeteers.
Toby said: “I thought Dale (the show’s co-director Dale Rooks) was bonkers when she was talking about an elephant in a rainforest!”
He added: “My bedroom was covered in cuddly elephants as a kid. Being asked to do a show about elephants is fantastically exciting.”
A team of four puppeteers move Oona around, complete with her child rider. Toby explained: “The majority of the performers can’t see where they’re going.”
He said that the trick of making an animal seem to come to life was for the puppeteers to breathe in time with it.
The show began life outdoors, at first in a botanical gardens in Kent and then at the famous Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London.
The production team had to change a lot for a national tour of theatres, explained co-directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks.
Timothy said: “Our work that’s come from outdoors to indoors is always a challenge but it’s a positive challenge. It’s always reimagined but we always think what assets can be exploited and how we can replace what is unique to Regents Park that we can’t have in Sheffield.
“We’ve worked to re-create the jungle inside and the rest is just acting and seeing the elephant front and centre, which should be as appealing as it was seeing it ride around Chichester or coming around your seats in Regents Park.”
Dale added: ““We will go back to see Lilly’s grandma to tell the story while she is still searching for her lost family and the story will go forwards and backwards in time.”
Dale said that seeing the show had helped some survivors to come to terms with losing family and friends in the tsunami.
He said: “It’s a fairy tale but it’s got some reality in it. It’s engaging with realities and changing the world.”
The realities include Lilly and her animal friends coming up against ruthless hunters that will stop at nothing to capture exotic animals.
The directors aren’t worried that youngsters may see frightening scenes.
Dale said: “We found that some children will engage with it and think it’s real, while others will know it’s play-acting.”
Running Wild, Lyceum Theatre Until Saturday