Shakespeare pleaded, “Let us...on your imaginary forces work” and many theatre productions have taken that to heart, not least plays drawn from children’s literature or aimed at young people.
Those who are staying away from The Butterfly Lion at Brighton on the assumption that it must just be something for the kids are missing a joyously creative treat, demanding imaginations grasp the beauty and wonder of the story, both heart-warming and tear-jerking in equal measure. It is clear that not one audience member is leaving the theatre unmoved.
The play is based on what Michael Morpurgo has called one of his favourite self-penned novels. It’s a piece that has the author’s name written lovingly through its centre, like a stick of literary rock – troubled youngsters, the relationship between children and animals unlocking hidden depths of character and understanding, the trauma of war changing lives, and more.
Adaptor and director Daniel Buckroyd has crafted a worthy tribute to Morpurgo’s powerful storytelling in a pacy version that is engrossing and poignant, deceptively simple while rich in production values.
Newcomer Adam Buchanan has tremendous watchability and a stage authority as the young boy who runs away from school to discover a mysterious house with a chalk lion carved into the hill behind it. As he learns of its story from the kindly old lady inside (another stunning performance from a faultless Gwen Taylor), he hears of another lonely boy years earlier, living with his parents in South Africa, and his friendship with an orphaned white lion.
Aah, the white lion... with both the cuddly baby cub and the adult given incredible expression by Lloyd Notice (who also serves as an enthralling narrator with Gwen Taylor), you will soon believe “Le Prince Blanc” is really treading the boards. The puppetry might be simpler than in the likes of War Horse and The Lion King, but the cast works with extraordinary skill – so credibly transforming a kitchen table into an African waterhole, populating the stage with Adonis Blue butterflies, or drawing gasps of admiration every time the titular lord of the veld makes an appearance. You really do care what happens to this beautifully realised creature.
Everyone in this Mercury Theatre, Colchester, production deserves an ovation; not just the excellent cast and direction, but Juliet Shillingford’s design that manages (with the imaginary forces working) to create the wide open spaces of Southern Africa, the domesticity of an Aga-warmed kitchen, and the brutality of war-ravaged Europe; Mark Dymock’s subtle yet atmospheric lighting; Sue Pyecroft’s puppetry direction... the list could go on.
This is theatrical entertainment at its best: full of charm, great performances, and plenty of opportunity for childish and adult imaginations alike to turn the special into the spectacular.