Rich, compelling and beautiful - The Butterfly Lion on the Chichester stage

REVIEW: The Butterfly Lion, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until November 15

Monday, 14th October 2019, 11:52 pm
The Butterfly Lion - Photo by Manuel Harlan
The Butterfly Lion - Photo by Manuel Harlan

Michael Morpurgo’s modern classic is beautifully transferred to the stage in an exceptional night at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Morpurgo gives the company a real gift of a tale; CFT’s writer-in-residence Anna Ledwich responds with an adaptation which is every bit as impressive as her remarkable summer promenade creation with the CFT’s youth theatre.

But arguably it’s the vision of designer Simon Higlett and of lighting designer Johanna Town that delivers the real magic in The Butterfly Lion, the Minerva proving the perfect blank canvas for their wizardry.

Between them, they take us from an English boarding school to the plains of Africa, from the carnage of the First World War to the beauty and tranquillity of the Sussex countryside. We get streams, busy roads, tree canopies, passing giraffes, you name it. Where the projections in Macbeth in the main house are frankly a bit of an irritation, here they feel like the expression of a soaring imagination – and they completely take us with them.

All of which sets everything up perfectly for a first-class cast to tell Morpurgo’s first-class tale, with – ingeniously – Morpurgo himself (played by Jonathan Dryden Taylor) wandering onto the stage to frame the whole evening.

On-stage Morpurgo is revisiting his old school and finds himself swept up by memories of his childhood bid to escape the bullying he suffered… memories which conjure the young Michael (played tonight by Ruari Finnegan) and his tormentors, all of which leads seamlessly into the tale of The Butterfly Lion.

Or War Lion, you might call it – as once again a treasured animal is reunited with its devoted human friend amid the horrors of war.

And once again, puppetry beautifully brings the animal to life for a story of separation, loneliness, search, reunion and redemption.

With the knowledge that (the real) Michael Morpurgo was sitting in the audience, clearly moved, you really did feel you were watching something very special indeed… undoubtedly the highlight of the Chichester Festival Theatre 2019 summer season – a night which really was all about the vast possibilities of the theatre rather than its tricks or gimmicks.

Lovely too was the sense of ensemble among the cast, actors swiftly switching to the required roles. Impressive also was the way the characters’ younger selves were so well matched to their older incarnations.

And so the piece came full circle, with the on-stage Morpurgo at the end still lost in his memories, pondering their power but also the importance of nurturing them – precisely the theme which runs through the show.

Sing Yer Heart Out in the Spiegeltent works so well because it is theatre at its most direct and most shocking; The Butterfly Lion soars because it gives us theatre at its most poignant, the theatre of longing, of hopes and dreams and memories. Dale Rooks directs with her trademark mix of sureness, intelligence and sensitivity. The result is absolutely beautiful, every last effort, every last detail rich and to be savoured.