Viv Hardwick finds that Liz Crowther is Running Wild with children and animals... of the puppet variety

THERE’S an elephant permanently in the room when you discuss family drama Running Wild with actress Liz Crowther... it’s a puppet pachyderm along the same lines as the stage performances made famous in War Horse.

The link is the pen of Michael Morpurgo, who published Running Wild in 2009 basing it on the tragic 2004 tsunami where an elephant called Ning Nong saved eight-year-old Amber Owen from the onrushing water in Indonesia.

Crowther has fond memories of Tyneside having appeared at Newcastle Theatre Royal in several tours and also been part of the cast of popular BBC children’s programme The Dumping Ground, which is filmed in Jesmond.

“I did that the summer before last and I know children like my godson were thrilled because I was able to get a signed photograph of the cast. I also remember doing a wonderful show with Kenneth Branagh at Newcastle theatre Royal called Ducktastic which ran for a month. I think that the Frank Matcham venue is perfect for our show because we have an epic play that is visually spectacular with huge life-size puppets and a child-led story about a girl named Lilly (corr),” she says.

While theatre often focuses on fantasy, Running Wild is based on truth although Michael Morpurgo chose to switch the hero’s character to that of a boy called Will Robert. The adaptation by Samuel Anderson returns the role to female. The girl is carried to safety by an elephant called Oona, but Lilly must then survive in a dangerous jungle with only her Grandma (Crowther) determined to stage a rescue mission.

“I think it makes a real difference that this play has a true story background. Michael Morpurgo doesn’t like reading or writing fantasy, although he admires the CS Lewis novels, he needs a grain of truth and he read about this child saved by an elephant. He talked about it on the radio and there was a phone-in saying that he was telling fibs about it being a boy. The caller said, ‘You’re a liar because it was me, and my name is Amber’. It was her and she’d been able to reach the roof of a hotel and was saved because the ground floor was destroyed. I think Michael then took the story on its own journey,” says Crowther.

The strong message of the project concerning the threatened habitats through things like climate change and jungle destruction for cultivation are also an important part of Running Wild, with one of the girls playing Lilly starting a petition against deforestation with the aim of producing cheap palm oil. “The orang-utan forests are being destroyed as a result. We also see that our heroine has such independence and she’s really intrepid and I think that’s a wonderful thing to see, especially in Britain. We hide our emotions quite a lot and this is a very good thing for children to see. We do the tsunami in quite a beautiful way. It’s almost balletic but still has huge impact and I think it’s important for children to see those things. It’s part of what theatre is for and it helps guide all of us. You can watch a play and it will change your mind. Theatre is all about heightened experience,” she adds.

She feels that most drama involves conflict and the extremities of human emotion and what people will do in a situation. “You don’t want to watch a drama about someone having breakfast do you? You do think sometimes when things go extreme, ‘For goodness sake, we’ve had incest, murder and what have you all in the space of a few minutes’. Our play is set in Indonesia and I was listening to the World Service about that part of the world where a football club had a star player, but when he got ill they hadn’t paid his wages and he died. Two days after he was dead, the club paid his parents all the fees he was owed,” says Crowther.

When the play launched in Chichester, Virginia McKenna – the actress famous for the film Born Free, which has a global elephant conservation project – came to speak to the cast. “She said she was always annoyed when people talk about a herd of elephants or a school of dolphins because each animal is as individual as you or I. I think Running Wild is an important story to tell plus something exciting to watch.

“My story is one of the intrepid granny who goes off to find her granddaughter. We’re trying not to say what has happened to the girl’s parents because it’s part of the story that unfolds. My character has also paid for the family’s holiday and feels responsible,” says Crowther, who is delighted that the production still has three of its original puppeteers.

“It started off as a youth theatre idea two or three years ago and last year went to Regents Park. The puppeteers are fantastically good. I’ve tried working alongside them and you end up putting your hands in ice, which is agony,” she adds.

Daughter of popular BBC entertainer and presenter Leslie Crowther, Liz’s career dates back 40 years to TV detective Shoestring when she played his assistant Sonia. She’s appeared in landmark shows from Bergerac to Outnumbered and enjoyed treading the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“I wish I was a grandma in real life, but I wouldn’t have had so many adventures as an actor. It’s weird because I’ve probably done almost 100 plays, but I still get unusual letters from people who have seen a TV role by me that’s dubbed in French. I was lucky to be part of the heyday of the BBC when I could do costume dramas like Mansfield Park, work with Leonard Rossiter and I’ve got a photograph of myself with Tony Hancock. I once met Betty Davis backstage once. Theatre is now definitely my favoured medium because it’s different every day,” Crowther says.

Running Wild, Newcastle Theatre Royal. Tuesday, May 9 to Saturday, May 13. Box Office: 08448-112121 or