Writer: Rudyard Kipling adapted by Jessica Swale
Director: Max Webster
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Mowgli (Keziah Joseph) dreams of, or perhaps he remembers, an earlier part of his life when he lived in an actual rather than an urban jungle. When Mowgli’s father is killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (Lloyd Gorman) the wolves of the jungle and other animals rally around and agree to raise the man-child as one of their pack. But continuing pressure from the tiger forces Mowgli to consider an option that he dreads – to acknowledge that he is different from his friends and to grow up and become a man.
Adapting The Jungle Book in our politically over-sensitive times is daring. Rudyard Kipling was, after all, a strong advocate of Colonisation. Jessica Swale’s adaptation avoids any controversy by shifting the focus towards the life-lessons that Mowgli (and by extension the young target audience) must learn about diversity and the need to respect others. There are, however, no preaching or lengthy speeches; points are made with a light touch.
Throughout the show, there is a sense of children at play creating their own story from mundane objects. Designer Peter McKintosh does not attempt to create a lush setting for the jungle but rather suggests an urban background with ladders hanging from the rafters and playground climbing frames in place of trees and foliage.
This is a production with which the young audience can relate with ease and has many features that they will be able to recognise. The bad-boy Monkeys prefer to be known as Funkeys and strut around the stage striking poses like they have stepped out a second-rate music video. Rather than a debonair villain Lloyd Gorman is a petty bully glorying in being macho but attacking his prey from behind. Deborah Oyelade’s slinky Bagheera is very much based upon the design, and personality, of Catwoman. Keziah Joseph is an excellent bratty Mowgli, dodging lessons, taking risks and making mistakes but very vulnerable to being hurt when he senses that he is different from his adoptive family.
The Jungle Book is one of Walt Disney’s greatest cartoons yet director Max Webster seems to have taken inspiration from a lesser movie. Several of the cast double as musicians and, when playing, are dead ringers for the shabby Beatnik ensemble in The Aristocats. The ramshackle mood suits perfectly the swinging irresistible score from Joe Stilgoe and allows Webster to pay tribute to the cartoons in a wonderfully goofy scene of Mowgli sneaking into a village and finding a series of implausible hiding places as he tries to steal the one thing that Shere Kahn fears.
The defining characteristic of this version of The Jungle Book is that of being confident enough to trust the audience to appreciate the points being made so that rather than force issues the cast can concentrate on delivering a light and very funny show that everyone can enjoy.
Runs until 6 May 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan