The Butterfly  Lion

Thu 29th November – Sat 1st December 2012

reviews

Robyn Shepherd

at 23:05 on 29th Nov 2012

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Although as a child I had read a few of Michael Morpurgo’s books, I hadn’t read the Butterfly Lion so I went into the play with an open mind with very little idea of what it was I was going to see. For anybody that doesn’t know the story it follows Bertie (Will Clarke) on his journey away from his African home and his lion, to England where he meets and leaves Millie (played by Beth Greenwood as a younger character and by Ellen Milton as the older character) and continues on to the trenches of the war before reuniting the main characters once more. Another Soup Productions did not leave me disappointed. It was clear from the very beginning that a lot of care and attention, time and effort had been poured into this labour of love by Director Rowan Williams-Fletcher and Assistant Director Sam Foster.

Walking into the theatre the stage was bare apart from a little table downstage right with a pot of tea, a plate of scones and some cups. The rest of the front of the stage was covered with cargo net which very efficiently transforms into the trenches in the second half with the aid of some wire and sandbags. The scene was set with quiet birdsong. Throughout the play the sets were not complex but were very effective and well made, perfectly complimented by some beautiful and visually dynamic images projected on the backdrop. Props were not overused and I genuinely appreciated the fact the Older Mille poured hot steaming tea from her teapot for Michael (Callum Kenny). I have to say however that I was slightly disappointed that at a later stage in the second half that Younger Millie had to mime pouring glasses of water, I felt this showed a lack of consistency. Costumes were also of a high standard for the most part particularly the military uniforms and Rachel Read can only be commended for this, although I believe that the costume for Izzy Webster as The Lion let down the amazing masks created by Ellen Marshall and Bella Alexandroff. It would have been visually so much better for her to be in a plain white long sleeved top and white leggings compared to grey joggers and cream vest top.

The tech of the production was also executed very well by Dan Gosselin and Ophélie Lebrasseur. The African music brought me into the savannah despite the temperature of the Assembly Rooms being just above freezing and the sound of exploding shells combined with the brightening and dimming of the lights to suggest distant explosions sucked me into the trenches with Bertie and his men.

The standard of acting from the cast was also very high. Ellen Milton as Older Millie had a huge task narrating the play yet she compelled me into believing that the story she was telling was truly hers, that she was narrating her own memories and took on the role of the old widow. Callum Kenny as Michael Morpurgo suggested the lonely young schoolboy in such a way that whilst stood on stage, hands in pockets in the rain, I would have taken him in for tea and scones to warm him through just as Older Millie did and his enthusiasm for her story was genuine and innocent. I do feel however that more could have been done, and this is perhaps a result of the part being slightly underwritten, to enhance the similarities between Bertie and Michael’s characters and felt that this point was easily missable as a result of this.

Equally Beth Greenwood and Will Clarke performed very well as Young Millie and Bertie. Will’s loneliness was so plain to see until he met the Lion (Izzy Webster) and later, Millie. I was a little apprehensive at first seeing the petulant way in which Will and Beth portrayed their characters as children but it actually resulted in a charming innocent friendship that blossomed into genuine love as you saw them slowly grow up and mature together.

The supporting ensemble were strong overall and interacted well and particular commendation goes to Anna Feroldi as the Mother who balanced the different characteristics of the role beautifully and Charly Burnell for providing some brilliant light hearted comic relief as Nurse Clara. Izzy Webster also performed well as the Lion using her mask to lead her movements in the style of the Big Cat.

Overall I enjoyed this performance, and from the way the audience reacted I think they did too, and would recommend this to anybody who can make it but particularly if you are feeling a little bogged down by work or end of term blues to lighten your heart and mood. The production was of a strong standard for a student production and it would be a real shame to miss it.

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Emily Simpson

at 01:10 on 30th Nov 2012

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Back in the days when reading was still a relatively new pleasure that I was discovering, Michael Morpurgo was my author of choice. As I have grown up and reread his books, the beauty of them has only expanded as I realised that his stories are those that can be enjoyed by all, young and old. It is safe to say, therefore, that I arrived at this play with high expectations, and with the director (Rowan Williams-Fletcher) and assistant director (Sam Foster) directly referencing the story’s all-age charm in their introduction in the programme, I could only hope that they would bring this to fruition. I am pleased to say that they were certainly successful.

Morpurgo’s stories are often referenced as being accessible and enjoyable because of their simplicity and this production of ‘The Butterfly Lion’ found a commendable balance between the ‘visually stunning’ features of the play, again cited by Williams-Fletcher and Foster in their Director’s Note, and the temptation to go overboard with staging and props. In terms of setting, the story is ambitious, flitting from Africa to England to the trenches in France until finally returning to England again, but the decision to keep only two major props on stage throughout the play – old Millie’s antique tea table and camouflage netting coming out towards the audience – served as a link for the audience between all of the backgrounds. The constant presence of older Millie (Ellen Milton) and Morpurgo (Callum Kenny) emulated this feeling of continuity throughout the retelling, and the decision to have both of them watch, along with the audience, the story unfold successfully emphasised the ‘story within a story’ element of this play. The prop choices for the more fluid moments of the play were equally well chosen, the fence surrounding Bertie’s childhood African home especially communicating the physicality of his entrapment and loneliness. Although the fence is removed as the story progresses, nevertheless the fear of being alone and trapped that it represents stayed with the audience as Bertie moves through the different stages of his life. Also, this review would be incomplete without special mention of the wonderful masks of the white lion created for this production.

The attention given to sound and lighting also contributed to the subtlety that this production mastered. Certain scenes really impressed, especially the depiction of the trenches in France, with the constant humming of artillery and flickering lights exacerbating the fear that Bertie was writing to Millie about. Some of the transitions between older Millie’s story-telling to the action unfolding were handled very efficiently, with lovely moments when the two scenes collided due to the young Morpurgo jumping up to predict what might happen. The transitions were not always so smooth and, given that there were a lot of scene changes involved, did at times seem a little stilted, but overall the effect of the movement between the past and the present was pleasing.

The relationship between Millie (Beth Greenwood) and Bertie (Will Clarke) truly was a pleasure to watch as the two actors successfully portrayed the pair as they moved from childhood to the more uncertain world of adulthood. Greenwood especially managed to show Millie’s gradual maturity with great sensitivity and subtlety. The play spans almost their entire lifetime together and the pair’s chemistry and sensitivity towards each other resulted in the feeling that they truly had grown old together; when they finally physically become close to one another, cuddling in the centre of the stage, it feels only natural because of the impressive way in which Greenwood and Clarke had already demonstrated the way in which their characters grew alongside one another.

In general, the cast flourished together, with special attention to Anna Feroldi’s portrayal of Bertie’s mother, Mary – she emanated the gentle maternal warmth of this character and was so rewarding that her exit, even though it is not dwelled on for long nor does it form a major part of the action, is a truly saddening moment. The characters of older Millie and Morpurgo were equally likeable and compelling, however the relationship between might have benefited from a little bit more of a two-way interaction and conversation, giving Morpurgo the chance to respond with more than just a one off line and appear less like a prop that Millie is just using in order to tell her story. Having said that, there were still some lovely moments when the characters bonded, and when Morpurgo finally leant over to take Millie’s hand, the friendship between them came to fruition.

Overall, this production maintains the heart-warming nature of the original story but both the cast and the staging decisions made this version truly unique. If you are looking for a gentle, pleasing story which is made even more enjoyable by the sensitivity and skill of the cast, I would thoroughly recommend ‘The Butterfly Lion’.

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