Adaptations are always difficult when it involves something that’s so familiar. Most of us have seen Disney’s Jungle Book many times, and then there have been live performances, merchandise and a big budget Hollywood remake a couple of years ago, but of course, this is an adaptation of the original stories from Rudyard Kipling. So when a story beloved by adults and children alike is being tweaked, it needs to somehow retain its flavour and the selling point of the story, the aura that created the magic of the original and have colourful and lovable characters.
Kipling’s Nobel Prize-winning family classic has been adapted for the stage by playwright Jessica Swale, whose acclaimed play Nell Gwynn won the Olivier for Best New Comedy in 2016, with music composed by internationally renowned songwriter Joe Stilgoe, so the audience is in safe family entertainment hands.
The story has all the classic moments – Mowgli is raised by wolves, is trained by a lovable bear and a strict, yet caring panther and discovers himself as he grows up in the jungle while avoiding the many dangers from hungry tigers to mischievous monkeys to a manipulative snake.
The set, meanwhile, errs away from the traditional tried and tested setting of a jungle with trees primitive surroundings – instead opting for an industrial design, complete with corrugated metal panels etched with the show’s title in blood red, and ladders reaching up to, and dangling down from, the rafters. All of which springs into life as the show starts, and become props in the hands of the performers. Being a fan of classic video games, I saw influences of Donkey Kong, Mario and Tarzan. There were even jungle gym style apparatus serving as a collection of fallen trees or low hanging branches, which allowed the cast to interact with each other at various heights and positions.
There’s no danger of animal onesies here – instead, you’ll find a bespectacled Bahgeera (Deborah Oyelade), Sheer Khan (Lloyd Gorman) rocking a leather jacket and a patchwork dungaree wearing, and very Welsh, Baloo (Dyfrig Morris).
Musicals aren’t my cup of tea, but even I can appreciate good songs and clever ways of utilising materials and lighting effects, such as the fire, trees and the moon.
The cast take on their roles with gusto – Keziah Joseph as Mowgli has the job of being the centre of the piece, and carried her gender-switched role off with aplomb. And what family Christmas piece would be complete without some pantoesque toilet humour, here in the form of the Monkeys, providing a good dose of silliness to the proceedings.
If panto isn’t your thing this Christmas, here is a fantastic family alternative. The Jungle Book is part of Royal & Derngate’s Made in Northampton season. A co-production with Children’s Touring Partnership, and runs until Sunday 31 December, before embarking on a major national tour.
Tickets are priced from £10 to £30 and can be booked by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or online at www.royalandderngate.co.uk.
Performance reviewed 1st December 2017