On Tuesday, I sat down for the opening night of Jessica Swale’s The Jungle Book, a musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous stories. Though a family-oriented play, I brought with me no children but the one locked in a cage somewhere in my psyche, turning that little rascal loose to make a grown man hoot like a chimp at every musical number.
From the moment I sat down in a sea of excited families, I was instantly enamoured by the scrapyard-esque set dressing of “THE JUNGLE BOOK” smeared in orange paint across corrugated iron. Peaking behind it was the main set, constructed entirely of wooden ladders to emulate a dense Southeast Asian rainforest. Straight off the bat, the promise of a set created entirely for acrobatics and wild apish climbing was set. And that’s exactly what I got – an energetic performance from actors stealing scenes from each other’s hands like wolves with a piece of meat. If wolves had hands, that is, much like our protagonist.
Mowgli, played by the talented Keziah Joseph, entered the play portrayed by a sack-cloth puppet (again, puppeteered by Joseph). I was absolutely smitten with this stylistic choice, and the puppetry and horrifyingly accurate baby noises had me convinced. As the character grew up, the puppet was replaced by Joseph’s full-flesh self and was, surprisingly, not jarring at all. The animation of the Mowgli puppet and Joseph’s own body acting, in the best way, connected them as one and the same. Before I started writing, I promised myself I wouldn’t mention Walt Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation, but I found Joseph’s acting even more fantastically active than the rotoscoped cartoon form of the man-cub.
The cruel and terrifying tiger Shere Khan (played by Lloyd Gorman) was fantastically hammy in his smoky eyes and Elvis Presley suit, but part of me felt he wasn’t hammy enough. The loud King of Rock inspired outfit came as a reputation preceding Khan, only for Gorman to give a more toned-down performance. I feel like the original intention was a more larger-than-life Khan, but the performance seemed more Les Miserables. Again, Gorman was great, but his performance felt out of place. Perhaps it was the performances of Dyfrig Morris and Deborah Oyelade (Balloo and Bagheera repectively) wot dun it, whose ladder-and-iron scenery chewing (that can’t be good for panthers or bears) banter I couldn’t get enough of.
I would also like to give a mention to the group acting in the musical – the actors playing the wolves and the monkeys (Rachel Dawson, TJ Holmes, Avita Jay, Chipo Kureya and Tripti Tripuraneni) managed to not only individualise themselves as characters basically playing the same role, but also work in some perfect hive-mind of choreography. I’m no actor, so the ability of not tripping over your own feet – let alone other people’s – is still awe-inspiring to me.
And I will fight any child who say they enjoyed this more than I did.
The Jungle Book plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal until Saturday 21 April 2018.