Written and devised by: Le Navet Bete and Mark Laville (inspired by the original by Rudyard Kipling)
Director: Mark Laville
Reviewer: Karen Bussell
It’s Jungle Bells and animal magic all the way to a fiery finish in The Barbican Theatre’s panto alternative.
Le Navet Bete’s take on the much-loved Jungle Book is the theatre’s sixth Christmas co-production with the Devon company of clowns and, once again, is selling out fast.
An electric safety fence is erected, security procedures are explained and all is set for its ‘gorgeous Christmas gift’: the ultimate Voice-Over Live Animal production of Rudyard Kipling’s classic.
The cast list boasts myriad painstakingly-trained beasts including 20ft Indian rock python Sebastian as Kaa, heavyweight Himalayan brown bear Sheng Zin as Baloo, Iberian wolves Sanchez, Miguel and Carlos and an Animal Chorus featuring jungle chickens, a meerkat, frogs and a cod. And so when every last monkey, big cat, elephant and jungle frog escapes, the choice is to cancel … or for the foursome to take on all the roles. Cue lost property costumes, coffee cup snouts, bucket stilts, vacuum pipe trunk, seat pad elephant ears and Marigold glove cockscombs.
And so ensues almost three hours of silliness, monkey mayhem and plenty of frantic cross-dressing – panther to wolf, bear to tiger and much much more.
Newly graduated Nina Raines makes her design debut constructing a simple, effective set – a wooden look-out post which doubles as man village with animal cages beneath, a large moveable Council Rock and a pole and rope jungle – while Jules Laville’s choreography is particularly apparent in hissing cat fights and throwing the man cub about.
Mowgli is played by a startlingly pale Matt Freeman, desperate to relate, with appropriate lighting and music from production manager Alex White, his experiences during three months of living with wolves. Freeman’s facial expressions are brought into play along with on point shoulder action as the ‘progressive man cub pretending to be a wolf’, learning jungle law/lore and growing from gormless foundling to standing on his own two feet and ultimately saving the day.
Al Dunn makes a great David Attenborough-esque, pith helmet-wearing narrator; is hilarious as slithering Kaa resplendent in sleeping bag and rocking a rope but his finest moment is as Pete the repeating parakeet. With strategically-placed feather dusters, rubber glove claws and Ikea bag wings, his incessant repetition is, at times, quite improper. Dan Bianchi is lumbering, back scratching Baloo with a Yogi Bear American drawl and, donning an orange boiler suit with duct tape stripes, adopts a strange beyond the Iron Curtain accent as Shere Khan – Chaka Khan while Nick Bunt’s tinsel-tailed Bagheera is suitably slinky and his animal-training clicker skills unsurpassed.
The Plymouth University graduates’ signature physical theatre and knockabout humour may be somewhat subdued, and a few edits may be needed (the over long wolf dancing perhaps), but there are laughs aplenty and a chance for several audience members to act up and monkey around. Add a rapping elephant, the Cluckle Brothers, a ghost from the Nether Regions, Bollywood dancing monkeys, live music, Simian Says games for all – and what’s not to love?
Runs until 15 January 2017 | Image: Le Navet Bete