first night

The Butterfly Lion

Felicity McDowall enjoys an adaptation of a children's favourite.

At this cold time of year, before you consider putting on an extra blanket or turning the heating up, I recommend you go and watch Another Soup’s heart-warming production of The Butterfly Lion. This wonderful Michael Morpurgo retelling is an innocent and captivating tale that incorporates the exotic with the familiar and like most Morpurgo classics is set against the backdrop of war. The Assembly Rooms theatre was the perfect setting for this ambitious production, as the play saw the theatre transformed into the African Savannah, a magical hilltop and a WW1 trench.  

The play follows the life of young Bertie, who feels isolated and alone in Africa on his parent’s cattle farm until he adopts a white lion cub; although the happiness he finds in the lion is short-lived as he is soon sent off to school in England and his lion is bought by a French circus owner. However, when Bertie arrives in England he finds happiness once again in the form of Millie, another lonely child.  Thus, they immediately form a connection that sees them re-united even in the midst of war.

The play began on a rainy day in which young Michael Morpurgo (Callum Kenny) is seen missing school and is invited into old Millie’s house for tea. From here, the beautiful tale of the Butterfly Lion begins, as Michael asks Millie all about the curious butterfly lion on the hilltop. Michael and Millie then effectively took on the roles of narrators linking the scenes together and indicating the passing of time between scenes. Kenny made a brilliant young Michael by reacting enthusiastically to the memories Millie recounted and I was very impressed by his attentiveness, as he appeared gripped with the tale of the Butterfly Lion. He successfully managed to remain fascinated throughout as he watched the scenes being played out from a small table on stage left. Ellen Milton was also very impressive as the archetypal old woman, complete with grey hair and wrinkles, reminiscing over her long lost past. However, the best performances came from Will Clarke and Beth Greenwood who played Bertie and Millie. They were the perfect young companions and loving couple and were even impressive as eight year olds as they adopted childish mannerisms and reflected the innocence and magic of the children’s story to the audience.

In terms of set design, best use was made out of a screen at the back, which was utilized throughout the piece to dictate setting. This was complemented by the sound effects of tweeting birds, rain and shellfire that at times created a foreboding atmosphere and added some mysticism to Millie and Bertie’s meetings.

Another successful aspect of the play was the presentation of the white lion, played by Izzy Webster, who effectively embodied the lion as she crawled around stage, emulating the stealth and movement of the lion. Izzy presented the lion by holding a lion mask close to her face, which became larger as the lion grew older and was a very convincing representation created by Ellen Marshall and Bella Alexandroff.

The Butterfly Lion proved to be an emotional rollercoaster for me as each moment of happiness seemed followed by a moment of tragedy. This was particularly pertinent towards the end of the first act, when Bertie and Millie are separated just as their relationship is gaining momentum. Their morose mood is heightened in this scene as they stand next to each other but are at the same time very distant, creating a feeling of sympathy within the audience. Whilst they both read each other’s letters alternately, spotlights focus the audience’s attention on them until they both read “I want to fly free” in unison, ending the act dramatically. 

My favourite scene in the production came just after the interval, in which Bertie is seen courageously fighting in the trenches and entering no man’s land. Effectively portrayed with part of the stage lowered and covered in camouflage, edged by sacks and wire. The scene was enthralling and full of suspense, even though it was arguably one of the hardest scenes to depict, as it can be very difficult to capture the true horror of warfare in the trenches. However, it was successfully presented through the use of stage effects as the lights kept dimming and the sound of gunfire and bombs echoed around the theatre, creating a threatening atmosphere.

The ending was also very powerful, as the young Michael discovers Millie died years ago and thus returns to Millie’s house looking for answers when young Millie and Bertie appear behind him. Reminding him that “each butterfly is fragile but together they make lions breathe and roar” and it is these final empowering lines that accentuate the mysticism of the piece.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience watching Another Soup’s inventive production of The Butterfly Lion, and I highly recommend it to anyone fancying a bit of escapism from end of term essays.

Felicity McDowall

30 November 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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