It was one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. In December 2004, somewhere between 230,000 and 280,000 people perished as waves of up to 100ft high engulfed the shores of South East Asia during the infamous Boxing Day tsunami. Yet amazingly, some survived - among them, a girl called Amber Owen who had been riding an elephant along the beach whilst holidaying in Thailand with her family. Unnerved by the strange activity in the water, the elephant pulled away from the shoreline and ran away before the tidal wave hit, saving Amber's life in the process. 

It was this real-life story that provided the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo's Running Wild, first published in 2009 and now coming to Coventry in a spectacular stage adaptation at the Belgrade Theatre. But as Morpurgo himself explains, the seeds of the idea were actually sown much earlier. 

“The beginning of a story happens a long time before a story ever starts, often in a writer's childhood,” he says, describing his love of stories like The Elephant's Child and The Jungle Book when he was growing up. “Good writers have a way of blocking the way for other writers to follow, and I felt like [The Jungle Book] had blocked the story of a boy's adventures in the jungle, which everyone wants to write. But when I discovered this piece in the news, I thought, 'Stuff you, Kipling - I'm going to write this story!'”

In the months following, details were slowly forgotten and changed - Morpurgo's novel actually follows the story of a boy called Will, who finds himself being carried into the depths of the Indonesian jungle. It wasn't until an earlier version of the show began to be publicised that the real-life Amber Owen realised her story had inspired a book and got in contact with the theatre. In a nod to this revelation, the new production visiting Coventry this year will instead feature a girl called Lily.

The gender-swap isn't the only major change the show has undergone since its inception - its first outing was actually as a promenade performance by Chichester Festival Theatre in the Cass Sculpture Park. Bringing the show indoors has resulted in a whole new design, as well as changes to the action for various practical and aesthetic reasons. 

“In Chichester we didn't have a set at all,” explains the show's original director, Dale Rooks. “The actual environment was our set, and one of the things that really excited me when I arrived was this enormous steel whale in the background of where we chose to do the tsunami scene. When we go indoors, we'll have to be inventive with that again and find a way to make it work.”

“[At Regent's Park] we had these huge bamboos on three revolves,” says current director Timothy Sheader, “but we were worried that an elephant on a revolve in an indoor theatre might look like a circus elephant, so we've completely changed it. The design now is the detritus of the tsunami, which will be a constant reminder that this girl is not just having fun running through the jungle - she has survived one of the worst tragedies in our lifetime, and is looking for her family. So we'll be creating the canopy of the jungle with doors and wheels and bits of car, and using lamp posts that light up green and bits of electric cable for the jungle vines.”

“What's been hugely gratifying and very exciting,” adds playwright Samuel Adamson, “is that the project keeps reinventing itself. We've had to keep thinking of new ways to tell the story.”  

But the biggest visual feast and the real stars of the show will come in the form of the incredible animals populating the jungle landscape, brought to life through the puppetry magic of War Horse's Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié. 

“I was a self-confessed elephant nut as a kid,” recalls Olié. “My bed was half-covered in elephant cuddly toys, so being asked to do a show about an elephant was fantastically exciting!”

Operated by a skilled team of four, the three metre-long Oona the Elephant has already been out and about in Coventry, meeting shoppers and passers-by in the city centre. Scale was one of the biggest challenges faced by the designers. The puppet needed to be both visually impressive and practical, strong enough to bear the weight of a child but light enough not to put undue strain on the puppeteers over multiple performances. On tour, they've also had to be creative with her entrances - in some theatres, there's no room for Oona to be squeezed in backstage, so she has to make her way in through the auditorium instead!

While Running Wild is a very different sort of show to War Horse, fans of the production and of Handspring Puppet Company's work certainly won't be disappointed - Oona is just as startlingly lifelike as her equine cousin, and she also shares the limelight with a family of friendly orangutans as well as a terrifying tiger prowling the forest floor. In order to achieve the realism for which Handspring's work has become famous, puppeteers are carefully trained to move together as one organism, as well as being taught how to imbue their puppets with distinct characters and feelings. 

“Breath is key - it's the main emotional indicator,” says Olié, explaining how it can be used to show whether an animal is excited, frightened or calm. “Focus is also important - what is the character interested in? There's also the issue of where the puppeteer’s own focus is. They should always be looking at the puppet and directing you to do the same.”

It's the strength of the connection that this breathtaking attention to detail fosters between the audience and the animals that got Virginia McKenna interested in the project. An actor best known for her starring role in the film adaptation of Joy Adamson's Born Free, McKenna is also a prominent wildlife campaigner and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, a charity that works to draw attention to the plight of animals in captivity, as well as those mistreated or hunted by people in the wild. 

“It actually all started because of an elephant and not a lion as many people think,” she says. “It was the death of an elephant at London Zoo in 1968 that was the catalyst. [Running Wild] is such a wonderful story because it turns on what animals feel and think. So many of us today have this 'us and them' attitude towards animals, but we’re animals too. Through this young girl who goes off into the forest, we get to see all the things we’ve missed and been insensitive to, and also how much there's still time for us to learn.”

On tour, the production will be working with the charity to help promote its message of better treatment for animals worldwide. The story also calls attention to the devastating ecological effects of the poorly regulated palm oil industry, with high demand for the versatile product as an ingredient in household goods having put many species, including orangutans, at risk. But while concerns about the environment and human and animal welfare all play a part in the story, viewers shouldn't expect a dry lecture.  

“The message isn't nearly as important to me as the story,” says Morpurgo. “I hope that certain things come through, but I don’t sit down to write something in order to promote a particular message. What you want for children is for them to work things out for themselves, and in this particular case, I hope that they will go away asking questions about what's happening in the rainforest, about planting palm trees and about what's happening to elephants. But it's not being thrust down their throat.”

“It's got a message,” Adamson agrees, “but it's also a rollicking adventure.” 

Running Wild is let loose at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre over the half-term break, from Wednesday 22 to Saturday 25 February and Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton Tuesday 6 to Saturday 10 June, and is recommended for children (and grown-ups!) aged six-plus.