It’s extraordinary to think that Rudyard Kipling, the archetypal Englishman, writer of If the country’s most popular poem, felt in fact like an outsider all his life, from his public schooldays on. And this, if the reader cares to look for it, comes over in all his work, including The Jungle Book.
From the moment the jungle bursts into the audience on Gary McCann’s versatile multi-levelled set, the story of Mowgli the man-cub and his friends and enemies in the jungle and amongst humankind cones vividly and dangerously to life. Director Andy Brereton and Janie Armour, composer and musical director, do real justice to Neil Duffield’s fluent honing down of this epic tale. Duffield homes in on Mowgli’s struggles to fit in – never quite at home or accepted among the jungle creatures or in the villages of men.
Six actor/musicians double in roles that would be substantial to take on singly. They succeed in making the stage teem with life – both animal and human. Justin McCarron’s sexy rock idol tiger Shere Khan, revelling in his ruthless power, sets the story in motion with a thrilling opening number that could easily become a chart-topping rock anthem. His figure hugging suit and mane of hair add to the image and remind us that Kipling’s creatures are anthropomorphic, even as he seeks to find their animal essence.
The actors understand this and each has found a way to suggest that essence. You-Ri Yamanaka is feisty and motherly as Raksha, Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother and doubles as a hypnotically glamorous cobra. Emma Manton’s allure begins with her smile - threatening and defiant as Akela the chief wolf and warm and motherly as Messua, Mowgli’s real mother. As Mowgli’s mentors, Claire Storey has found the soft-footed prowling cat in Bagheera the panther and David Plimmer the ponderous lumber of Baloo the bear.
Matthew Woodyatt’s Mowgli effectively provides the sympathetic centre of the action. The village of men is more important in this reading perhaps than in the book for Mowgli’s adventures there make up the second half of the play. Duffield takes this chance to send up British imperialism, it gives McCarron a chance to double as an absurd Sergeant Major, and everybody gets to tell a couple of Just So stories to good effect.
For me the highlights of a terrific seasonal show were the unnerving chatter of the Bandalog (the unpredictable and uncontrollable monkey people), and Mowgli’s terrifying discovery of fire – a marvellous stage effect. No wonder the family audience applauded the cast long and loud at the curtain call.