Anyone unfamiliar with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book could have been conceivably raised by the same wolves that adopt man-cub Mowgli at the heart of this century-old collection of stories that have woven themselves into the consciousness of children around the world. Thanks, in no small part, to one Mr Walt Disney.
Props for offering up some real drama for kids, even if this brave choice doesn't always stay on the forest path.
It would have been easy for director James Haddrell to go down the route of a mid-Summer panto; cast Baloo as the dame and stuffed the merchandising stand with headache-inducing LED headwear, but instead (according to the programme notes), Haddrell – a fan of the book from his formative years – wanted to get closer to Kipling’s original stories where the jungle is a world of danger and “they must often fight to survive”. Props to him for offering up some real drama for kids, even if this brave choice doesn’t always stay on the forest path.
Pre-show the Bandar-log monkeys are roaming through audience stealing phones, jackets and just about anything you don’t have a firm grip on. This light-hearted introduction is a little at odds with the show itself, which is notably light on laughs. Tracey Power’s adaptation is very much ‘tell’ and not ‘show’, with some key moments such as the demise of Shere Khan being described rather than an attempt at staging. Ok, so a herd of buffaloes is a tricky ask on an Off-West End stage, but Mowgli’s exasperated narration didn’t quite work for me. The dense exposition also gives young minds a chance to wander, and as is probably inevitable for a show aimed at such a young age group, the cast were having to compete with an auditorium that was fidgeting, chattering and in some cases crying. Everyone’s a critic. But to give them their due, the majority of the kids stuck with it even if the average summary heard after the curtain went down was “I liked the tiger best”.
Stylistically there are some odd choices here. The beating heart of this jungle are the drums, played variously throughout the show – but the unamplified cast sometimes struggle to be understood over the rhythm. Tabaqui the jackal starts off with a South East London accent which places this rainforest somewhere just off of Lee High Street, but loses it only for it to reappear in the closing scenes. At one point Akela performs a rap. When I looked at my notes afterward you’ll forgive me if I didn’t quite figure out how it all ties together. Maybe I’m looking too deeply and should have instead trusted the enthusiastic applause at the end.