BooksNorth WestReview

The Jungle Book – Aviva Studios, Manchester

Reviewer: Beth McMillan

Writer: Rudyard Kipling

Director: Robert Wilson

Music and lyrics: CocoRosie

We may think we know Rudyard Kipling’s timeless story of the famous man-cub Mowgli and company, but visionary director Robert Wilson has teamed up with Factory International to bring us ‘The Jungle Book’ as we’ve never seen it before.

The first thing that strikes you about the production is the fascinating set. Wilson has worked up with Set Designer Annick Lavallée-Benny to create a backdrop that transports the audience into the heart of the jungle. Wilson is known for using distinctive styles and imagery in his productions and his work often features animals and the natural world, so the Jungle Book feels like a natural fit!

The curtain is made up of vibrant colours, reminiscent of jungle foliage. The set, when it is revealed, is more minimalist. Wilson swaps rainforest greenery for an illuminated white screen background with illustrated leaves on, while the grass is a row a pointed triangles spanning the stage rather like that of a child’s drawing, creating a more abstract version of the jungle. The sight of a monkey pushing a shopping cart with a leaf in and details such as the rock that is the meeting place of the wolf pack being made up of old broken TV’s, symbolises the blurred lines between human and animal and the similarities between the society of man and the animal society of the jungle.

Although animals often feature in his productions, instead of attempting to portray them in a realistic way, Wilson usually has his actors wear white make-up similar to that of Japanese Noh theatre. In this production, the customary white is accompanied by minimal additional touches and subtle prosthetics to signify the animal, and the cast are otherwise dressed in colourful ‘human’ clothes.

A special mention must go to Costume and Associate costume designers Jacques Reynaud and Pascale Paume, and Make-up designer Manu Halligan as well as Daniel Cendron on prosthetics for their incredibly talented work.

The lighting design by Marcello Lumaca also adds depth and atmosphere to the production, differentiating between locations, from the heart of the jungle to the ‘man camp’, as well as signifying the time of day, or when Mowgli is handling ‘man’s red flower’ (fire). Occasionally, placing the unlit cast against the bright white of the illuminated screen, makes them appear like shadow puppet silhouettes which when paired with Wilson’s direction which keeps the cast in a constant state of repetitive movement to the music, makes a great visual effect.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Jungle book without a good soundtrack, and the original music from CocoRosie, provides… the bare-necessities! The musical sibling duo’s original score is somewhat repetitive but does contain a few certified bangers, chief among them ‘This is law of jungle’ and any of the more folk-inspired songs sung by the monkey!

The Sound design by Nick Sagar, unfortunately also leaves something to be desired with the occasional animal noises or dramatic crescendos seeming somewhat randomly placed. Some of the character’s deliberately high-pitched voices and animalistic squeaks make them difficult to understand above the music.

There are moments when the production arguably fails to achieve the emotional resonance it is setting out to, a dramatic scene falling somewhat flat as it doesn’t appear to have been earned, though the actors all work to bring the beloved characters to life with energy and charisma.

Childhood is a recurring subject in many of Wilson’s works and the theme of identity, growing up and finding your place runs throughout the production, reflected in the diverse cast of all ages and walks of life. However, Wilson does not appear to have fully considered his younger viewers- for a play that is marketed as being family-friendly, many of the deeper themes and more complex meanings will likely be lost on younger children in the audience.

That being said, “The Jungle Book” is a truly unique theatrical experience that is a testament to the diversity of storytelling and the power of visionary creative direction. With some great vocal performances, stunning set designs, and visually appealing staging and direction, the production is certainly accessible and enjoyable for most age groups. Wilson brings his extraordinary imagination to create this undeniably fresh piece of theatre.

Runs until 31 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score:

a unique visual treat

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. Jungle Book Family Day was hard to sit through.
    It was unfathomable to children who started to wriggle and switch off.
    It was a totally unclear incompetent telling of a story with pathetic costumes that did not portray the animals they were supposed to be.
    Disjointed, amateurish and pathetic production.
    Couldn’t wait to escape.
    How did this get the go-ahead???

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