Whatever you’re doing, stop it. Borrow a child and take it immediately to this life-affirming new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece. As the end of the world approaches, you will at least get two hours of absolute joy that will have made it all worthwhile.
Full disclosure, I know the story of The Jungle Book backwards. I directed a theatre version once and I produced a BBC radio drama version with an illustrious cast including Eartha Kitt as Kaa the python. But this production digs deeper into the backstory than any I have seen before. Writer Jessica Swale spends a good deal of time on the adoption of Mowgli the mancub into the pack, braving Shere Khan the tiger’s wrath, which is a bold move but sets up the story and the characters brilliantly.
To save Mowgli from Shere Khan’s jaws he needs two sponsors. Step forward Neil Hurst as Baloo the bear and Sam Yetunde as Bagheera the panther. Hurst draws on his experience as a song-and-dance man to great effect, and his charm and confidence talking directly to the audience suggest that he might be a dangerous man with which to share a stage. Yetunde is a find. She gives the panther a sense of menace and a sassy wit. I expect we’ll see more of her.
Mowgli begins as a series of curiously eyeless puppets, but soon transmogrifies into Jason Patel, whom I last saw as a delightfully horrid Tinkerbell in Peter Pan at The Dukes in Lancaster, where I described his performance as ‘camp as a row of pink tents’. None of that here. The Jungle Book is not so much about coming-of-age as the wrenching inevitability of it, and Patel gives a fine account of Mowgli’s distress at discovering he is a man, not a wolf.
The part everyone remembers from the Disney film is the monkey colony. If anything they are even better here. Played as a bunch of loping adolescents with headphones and very short attention spans, Tarek Slater and Tamara Verhoven Clyde are hilarious while Ebony Feare is outstanding in blue-tinted specs and a drum box. Feare and Slater double as Mowgli’s adopted wolf parents, and howl fearfully at Shere Khan’s threats. Clyde’s Kaa the python could for my taste be a touch more sssinuousss but her Akela the pack leader is exactly right. Meanwhile, her Leela (Mowgli’s mother), on discovering her long-lost son, brought a tear to the eye of this sentimental old fool.
As for Shere Khan, Gareth Morgan is suitably villainous and is helped by sound designer Adam McCready with a fine slicing sound effect whenever he cuts a throat with his claws. Morgan was Peter in the aforesaid Peter Pan, whom I described as ‘having spent a lot of time at the gym’. Here he has a reveal in act two that made many of the ladies, and some of the men, in the audience swoon. I’m saying no more.
The other thing people remember from the Disney version is the music. So it might seem hubristic to put songs in here, but composer Joe Stilgoe and musical director Tayo Akinbode have come up with a set of songs that rival the Mouse, and Stuart Bowden’s movement direction compliments them perfectly.
Designer Katie Scott has created an environment that looks like a skate park and does the job of the jungle nicely. The lighting by Jason Taylor is by turns broad daylight and moody night illuminated by a realistic moonbox, although it did scud around the sky a bit.
All of this excellent work was overseen by director Sarah Punshon. I’m a fan of Punshon’s work. She’s always highly inventive, her casting is generally impeccable, as it is here, and her work is very entertaining. I refer you to any of my reviews of her Christmas shows at The Dukes and the Williamson Park shows in Lancaster.
Which brings me full circle. You have until April 24 to catch this production. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until July 22 when you can join me and a picnic in Lancaster’s Williamson Park for The Jungle Book, adapted this time by Andrew Pollard and directed by Punshon. Assuming the world hasn’t ended, of course.
Photos: Joel Chester Fildes
The Jungle Book is at Oldham Coliseum until April 24, 2022. For more information, click here.