The Butterfly Lion
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Saturday 31st August 2013
Michael Morpurgo is one of the most illustrious names in modern children's literature and many of his popular stories have been lovingly adapted for both stage and screen. Most successful to date is the National Theatre's acclaimed production of War Horse, currently running in London's West End, Berlin, Australia, North America, and shortly to also be on tour around the UK and Ireland. It is, however, the story of The Butterfly Lion that Morpurgo states as one of his most favourite, and the one which Daniel Buckroyd and the sterling team at the Mercury Theatre have brought to life in Colchester this week.
This beautiful story-within-a-story is told through runaway schoolboy Michael as he stumbles upon Millie, a fascinating old lady who narrates for him the tale of her husband Bertie and his friend the white lion. We follow Bertie from his birthplace in Africa, via school in England, to war in France and then marriage and life back in England again in a life dominated by his relationship with this most rare of creatures. Delicately structured, this layered story is both simple and yet brimming with detail, fast-paced and yet richly descriptive, exotic and yet full of relevance; something to genuinely enjoy for every generation of the family, many of whom left the auditorium wiping a tear from their eye.
The staging is enchantingly theatrical, with the suggestion of time, place and character shifting seamlessly within the constant flow of the direction. The puppetry used to breathe life into the majestic white lion matches this undulating flow; the inevitable comparison against the naturalistic intricacy of the life-size, three-man horses in War Horse making way for a far simpler one-man puppeteer-actor as the lion. Lloyd Notice creates an absorbing character through the excellent puppets, as well as narrating sections of the story and giving this title character a disconnected yet integral voice of his own. The storytelling is led by Millie, played with effortless grace by esteemed actress Gwen Taylor. The narration smartly blends in and out of the action and Taylor is just as charming playing Millie's pre-adolescent kite-flying self as she is her more mature years. Adam Buchanan plays Michael, the present recipient of Millie's story, as well as blending into the action as Bertie. His portrayal of charismatic innocence is retained throughout, hinting constantly of Michael even while also representing the adult Bertie - an intelligent, considered and captivating performance.
Following an unforgettable production of The Hired Man earlier this year, and an outstanding version of The History Boys at the start of the summer, Daniel Buckroyd's leadership has once again inspired a show that one would be thrilled to experience at any leading playhouse in the country. Colchester have the fortune to be able to say "we saw it here first" as Bill Kenwright Ltd take this exciting production on a tour of the UK straight after its Colchester run, where families around the country will be able to share in this magnificent, life-affirming story.