Monday, 29 November 2021

REVIEW: The Jungle Book at the Watermill Theatre

The challenge of adapting Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories, The Jungle Book is that most of us know the tale from the 1967 Disney cartoon classic which incorporated brilliant music including “The Bare Necessities” and “I wanna be like you” in telling the story. The memories of that film define how we see certain characters when we hear the names of Shere Khan, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa and of course, the man-cub, Mowgli.  

It is therefore a bold move to reimagine the story from the original book for a new family show as Tom Jackson Greaves has done this Christmas at the Watermill Theatre. He changes the central theme of the book about abandonment and fostering and the challenges of moving between two worlds of the Jungle and Village into a story about acceptance, diversity, the time it takes to change attitudes and a question of where do we belong. It’s a very topical and clever adaption with a powerful message about the need for role models neatly wrapped up in a festive children’s show. It opens and closes powerfully and engagingly but the story telling does drifts off course in the middle section perhaps an issue with the adapter directing and choreographing his own work.

Simply and beautifully staged in a design by Jasmine Swan with a full-scale tree upstage, colourful washing lines and three simple representations of modern tower blocks, it immediately engages the audience as they take their seats. As the cast take up the starting positions, they joyfully wave at the young audience members perfectly setting the tone for the show. 

But the real magic of the production is the casting of ballet trained Karishma Young as Mowgli who combines elegant flowing movement and sign language to communicate without words with the other characters, and us, in a spell binding performance. Referred to throughout by the pronoun they/them it cleverly emphasises the challenges of being different, a human in an animal world, and the acceptance of by oneself and others of that difference. This is reinforced by making Baloo (the sloth bear) and Bagheera (the black panther), two very different animals, played by Rowena Lennon and Philippa Hogg with very posh accents as a caring protective partnership of them. The use of bright coloured silks is also skilfully integrated into the choreography to create visual representations of emotions in a creative and impactful way. 

One curious adaption change was to describe fire as a red flower without depicting it as such on stage causing a young voice behind me to ask, “I can’t see the flower” and I am sure miss the important plot development point of the impact of Mowgli bringing fire into Jungle. 

The story is powerfully introduced in a strong clear voice by Guido Garcia Lueches as Tabaqui, who acts a narrator as well as the side kick to Shere Khan accompanied by the cheerful jolly music of the opening numbers. Thankfully for once the Director keeps the actor musicians’ instruments largely offstage so that they don’t inhibit the story telling. The one exception is Peter Ashmore (who returns to the Watermill after last year’s excellent Christmas Carol) as Shere Khan who plays his violin on stage too often. Shere Khan’s character feels downplayed from the feared dominant animal of memories to a curious limping “Richard III” styled schemer and never conveys the ferocious power of the Tiger. Alexander Bean brings his powerful physical presence and deep voice to the characters of the Councillor Wolf and the mystical snake Kaa as well as keeping the band in time on the drums. 

However there is no doubt the delightful staging, the use of house lights to illuminate the young audience and draw them in with the frequent charming interactions by the cast (including eyeing up a child’s ice cream), and the sheer beauty of the movement of Mowgli means this is an enchanting production for young families with an unmissable message about the inspiration of “seeing people like me” as role models on stage and that there is always more to learn, more to challenge and more room to grow. Adults may prefer the memories of the Disney version but the young children on their first visit to the theatre will be enthralled and hopefully inspired by the messaging. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row L | Price of Ticket: £35.00

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