Essentially War Horse meets The Lion King, in many ways Michael Morpurgo’s 1996 children’s novel The Butterfly Lion is a theatrical dead cert.
Moving between the grasslands of South Africa, the trenches of France and the chalky foothills of Sussex, it follows the enduring friendship between a boy and a rare white lion cub, and has already been made into a successful stage play.
But while the source material is a gift for designers and movement directors, it’s certainly not a no-brainer for the adapter. Anna Ledwich embraces the thematic and narrative complexity by adding a second frame, featuring the adult Morpurgo. He articulates the more abstract themes – the blurred line between real and imagined, the non-linearity of time – and enhances the sense of stories echoing down generations.
She’s well served in this by Simon Higlett’s haunting set, consisting of the twisted branches of a witch elm. At first, Simon Wainwright’s video design feels superfluous and overly literal. But in the second half it creates some striking colour effects, saturating the stage with ghastly red for the field hospital, or giving whole scenes the cross-hatched appearance of spooky old illustrations.
Nicola Sloane is the standout among some fairly functional performances. But the mane attraction is Nick Barnes’ adult lion puppet. Whether batting down a kite with its paws or laying its head in Bertie’s lap, it is a vision of pale and mournful splendour, like a stone statue sprung to life. You sense it will stalk young imaginations long after the rather sentimental story fades.