Michael Morpurgo’s love of Chichester

Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo

After a summer stint in Chichester and then last summer in London, the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild returns to West Sussex, a place rich in happy memories for Michael.

50 years ago, it was at Great Ballard School near Chichester that Michael had his first job: “I was pretty well straight out of school,” he recalls.

“I was between school and university and needed a job for a year or so. There was an agency that used to put people of that age in schools, almost like a senior prefect. I ended up there for a year.

“We lived in a place called Rogate, and I used to drive every morning over the top of Goodwood. You couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful drive to work. And my daddy had acted at Chichester. He did a one-man show about G K Chesterton at the CFT. I would have been there at the time, so we are talking about 1964.”

All of which makes it all the more pleasing that Running Wild has been so closely associated with Chichester. It is a play which now enters its third incarnation on a tour which brings it to the CFT main-house stage from February 10-18 in an adaptation by Samuel Adamson.

“I am a writer writer rather than a theatre person, but I do understand that plays have to go through this organic change from time to time, certainly from first production to going to the West End,” Michael says. “It started as a promenade production in Chichester, done by the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre which has got a huge reputation. Dale is a wonderful director there, and it was her notion to do this. I went along thinking I had to see it.

“With some youth theatre productions, they are wonderful. With others, you can’t wait for them to be over because they are not very good.

“But this was just unbelievably good! We ended up going to see it twice we loved it so much.”

It then went to Regents Park the following year, last summer.

“In London, they could not take the hundreds of children they had had in Sussex, but it was still a child playing the main part, with the other parts taken by professional actors.

“When I saw it there, it was wonderful, really, really good. That was a certain stage. It was outdoors. But now on tour, they have had a greater focus on the casting, and obviously things have changed again.

“But the heart of the piece is still absolutely the same.”

There is a similar process in writing a book: “When I am making a novel, which I am at the moment, you have this process of sketching the story together, and I have just written the first draft. But I know the story is not what it is going to be when I have finished, and in a way it is quite similar with the play. But I know that each time, they are actually making it better.”

The play is the tale of Lilly. For Lilly, going to Indonesia isn’t just another holiday with mum. It’s a new start, and the chance to ride an elephant called Oona. But then the tsunami hits.

Charging deep into the jungle, Oona escapes the danger of the beach with her young rider desperately clinging on.

Miles from civilisation, at first there’s wonder, discovery and tree-top adventures amongst the orang-utans. But, as thoughts turn to mum left behind, wild tigers prowl, hunger hits, and Lilly must now learn to survive the rainforest. Then come the hunters.

Directed by Timothy Sheader and CFT’s director of LEAP Dale Rooks, with puppetry design and direction by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, both previous associate puppetry directors on War Horse, the team behind it are promising an epic and spectacular production telling an emotional and moving story of love, loss, loyalty and of living for the moment.

“There are echoes here of The Jungle Book,” Michael says. “This is my modern version of The Jungle Book. I loved Kipling when I was young. I always wanted to write a book about a child in the jungle, but the trouble was that the Kipling was so iconic, I just couldn’t – except when the tsunami struck.

“The newspapers were full of the horror of it all, and one story came out about an English boy on a beach in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, I forget where. He has been pestering his mum for an elephant ride down the beach, and this great wave was building up. Nobody knew.

“But his mum gave in on Boxing Day and he went off down the beach on the elephant. Nobody knew this great wave was coming, but the elephant caught a sense of it and turned inland and ran and ran and ran. Therefore the elephant saved the life of the child.

“The story was an absolute gift. I have now got my boy and my elephant, and I could even have my tiger. It was my way of bringing the story up to date and writing a story about the destruction of the rainforests.”

There was, however, an unexpected coda to the tale: “When the show came to London, I was talking on the radio about it, and afterwards the CFT got a telephone call after the programme was aired, and this woman said ‘I have just heard Mr Morpurgo on the radio, and he was not telling the truth. The plot said it was a boy. It was not. It was a girl. It was me!’

“She was in her 20s now and she was the girl whose life had been saved by the elephant all those years ago! I had read the article, and the trouble is you interpret it.

“You simply forget the details about it. I suspect it was probably because of The Jungle Book. I simply made the girl a boy in my head and started writing the story.

“I never thought twice about it!”

But the good news was that the girl and her family came along to see the show on a night when a girl was playing the lead. The story had come full circle…

n Tickets are available from Chichester Festival Theatre on www.cft.org.uk or by calling 01243 781312.

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