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The Butterfly Lion review at Barn Theatre, Cirencester – ‘magical and moving’

Jasper William Cartwright in The Butterfly Lion at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester.

Former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo has already lauded the Barn Theatre’s adaptation of his African morality play, The Butterfly Lion, as so impressive that he no longer sees the need for people to buy his book.

There may be a touch of false modesty here, but this tremendous and deeply moving production from director Jessica Daniels and her six-strong cast illustrates just why the Barn won The Stage’s 2019 fringe theatre of the year award less than 12 months after opening. Adapted by Daniel Buckroyd for audiences of all ages, it makes stunning use of the theatre’s well-established puppetry skills.

The narrative is built around a lonely only child who saves an orphaned white lion cub from the African High Plains, in the process discovering the heart-warming qualities of love and loyalty. The compelling story also takes in rural England and the devastating First World War trenches in France, building as it goes the joys of life-long friendship, without once patronising or playing down to the young audience.

One of the successes is having the same actor – Jasper William Cartwright – playing both the young boy Bertie and youngster Michael, whose life is changed when he learns the story generations later from Bertie’s childhood friend Millie (a wonderfully sympathetic performance by Hilary Harwood).

Capturing the three ages of the white lion, Maia Kirkman-Richards’ puppetry design is brought to fuller life by actor Jonathan Charles. Lizzy Leech’s ingenious kitchen sets help span the generations and Anna Clock’s score is particularly adept at shading in the play’s darker moments.

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Magical and moving exploration of Michael Morpurgo`s familiar themes of childhood and animal friendship