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September 3, 2013 5:45 pm
It’s the story of a boy and a beast, written by Michael Morpurgo, and it makes elegant use of puppetry. It’s not War Horse, however, but Morpurgo’s later children’s novel The Butterfly Lion, which again deploys that particularly intense relationship between children and animals to open up big historical events and difficult psychological territory. Daniel Buckroyd’s intimate adaptation doesn’t have the amazing puppet panache of the stage version of War Horse, but if offers a sensitive, fluent and engrossing staging of the story. In Colchester, at the outset of a national tour, it held an audience of young children spellbound.
No mean feat this, because the narrative structure is a story-within-a-story: not easy to play without losing energy. The unhappy young narrator – named Michael for the staging – runs away from his miserable 1950s boarding school, but only gets as far as the local big house, where a kindly old lady, Millie, takes him in from the rain. As he dries out, she tells the tale of her husband, Bertie, his early years in South Africa, the intense bond he formed with an orphaned white lion and the way he and the animal fared through the traumatic years of the first world war.
Though separated by time and place, Michael feels close to Bertie, sharing his loneliness. Buckroyd’s staging deftly brings this out: a few strategically placed dust sheets and Millie’s kitchen is a farmhouse in South Africa; a shift in Mark Dymock’s subtle lighting and the backdrop suggests a rain-heavy Wiltshire sky, a sunset over the vast expanse of the African veld or the lurid glow of battle over the trenches. A panel of railings becomes both the school gates that imprison Michael and the forbidding high fence around the African compound. Meanwhile, the rare white lion grows with the story from a squashy, kittenish little cub puppet to a mournful big cat (eloquently manipulated by Lloyd Notice).
As with many stage adaptations of novels, there is a cumbersome aspect to the structure of the piece: it’s too linear, some characters remain on one note, some plot twists are too abrupt. But the central characters come across beautifully. Gwen Taylor, as Millie, slips nimbly through the ages, becoming old lady, 10-year-old girl or young nurse with the switch of an apron, and Adam Buchanan is immensely vivid and touching as both Michael and Bertie. A simple, poignant celebration of the power of storytelling.
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