Manchester Theatre Awards

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The Jungle Book

By Jessica Swale. Music by Joe Stilgoe. Based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling’s
Children’s Touring Partnership and Royal & Derngate
Lowry Lyric Theatre
02 May 2018 to 06 May 2018

Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories, 'The Jungle Book' has been enchanting children for more than 100 years.

Today most people know his famous characters, Mowgli, Baloo and Shere Khan, from the Disney adaptations – a cartoon musical in 1967 and more recently an astonishingly realistic, computer graphic version in 2016. 

To produce a stage version to meet the expectations set by the big screen is a mountainous task. Yet, with a strong story to tell you can’t underestimate the power of a live performance to captivate young minds. Focused on the stage – a mass of hanging ladders and ropes to create a dense jungle canopy – it’s like they’ve all been hypnotized by python, Kaa.

To create the show, writer, Jessica Swale has gone back to the original 1894 book and used two stories from which to weave her narrative. The strength of the stories comes from their rich box of characters,and Swale keeps them recognizable while stretching some aspects for a 21st century audience.

Shere Khan the Tiger (Lloyd Gorman) makes for a greasy villain, dressed in a leather biker suit, slashed with orange flecks and matching streak through his hair. Deborah Oyelade delivers a sassy, Black Panther keeping perfect poise in a black velvet jump suit. Rachel Dawson gives a comical turn as Kaa, grumbling about ageing as she sheds her skin. While joker Baloo, here a playful Welshman (Dyfrig Morris) is as loveable as ever, with ‘a heart as big as the sun’.

 Perhaps the biggest change is giving the part of Mowgli to a woman, Keziah Joseph, whose slight frame, delicate features and pure tone of voice make her believable as a child.

 Swale has refocused the story to celebrate diversity. The story, with all the different animals living in harmony, presents a fantastic opportunity for this. For the most part this works well, but it feels occasionally that the issue has been allowed to overtake the story, becoming overly-wordy and preachy, in a jumble of references to gender, sexuality, race and disability.

 If this sounds a little too serious for families hoping for a bit of Bare Necessities uplift, Joe Stilgoe’s sunny tunes help keep it upbeat. In many ways this is a play with music rather than a musical, but the live music, embracing a rich mix of styles from across the globe, is a central strength of the show.

The tunes carry along what is essentially a joyful story of family, friendship and oneness under the same sun – and that’s a beat everyone can dance to.

Reviewer: Carmel Thomason

Comments

Comment by David Upton

I caught this elsewhere a week later. And as Carmel says it may still a jungle out there, but only a few tweaks are needed to Rudyard Kipling’s timeless tales to give the book a prolonged shelf life.

Jessica Swale, in her programme notes, talks of celebrating the book’s voice, politics and diversity, while the afternoon matinee audience around me seemed just as content with its noise, colour and excitement . . . as were their teachers.

The Children’s Touring Partnership, along with production companions, serves up a Jungle Book that manages to please audiences of most ages and persuasions.

Some of that will be due to familiarity with Disney’s animated incarnations of the story and its characters, even if they all get a distinct makeover. And the ubiquitous composer Joe Stilgoe provides a brand new suite of songs that cleverly, and wittily, sound as if they have come straight off the screen version. Baloo singing the baloos? Genius!

With its revolve stage, theatrical effects and insistent drama it occasionally resembles the National Theatre’s Hiawatha, of blessed memory.

Even here, in the final days of a five-month tour, the 11-strong cast give it full energy and commitment, several doubling up as musicians, or swapping roles between packs of wolves, or a bunch of very cheeky monkeys. Kipling’s view of their simian social habits, and bodily functions, would have been interesting!

Sometimes his messages about loyalty, courage, respect, and other virtues, do get slightly clouded over by a fast and furious narrative. The language can also be more of a street smart patois than user friendly.

But then this is a show that is at its best when it is principally about providing fun and enjoyment, and the ability of live theatre to feed the imagination.