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The Jungle Book (Leeds)

Kipling's classic gets reinterpreted in Leeds. Lively and imaginative but don't expect Disney.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The jungle is brought to life on the West Yorkshire Playhouse stage as Rudyard Kipling's classic is reimagined and reinterpreted as a dark, but lively, show for the whole family; using song, dance and puppetry to help tell the story of Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves who is ostracised by both the animal and human worlds.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Adapted by Rosanna Lowe. Directed by Liam Steel. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 18 January 2014.
© Tristram Kenton

Directed by Liam Steel, this production of The The Jungle Book is worlds away from the Disney film version that many people grew up loving; adhering more to Kipling's novel and going deeper into the underlying themes of family, identity and fitting in, as well as placing it into the wider context of how we interact with the environment.

In short, whereas the film version was a colourful and jolly (if sanitised) version of the story, it's clear that this is a show that's meant to do more than just entertain.

While this aim is a laudable one, the show does suffer from being a little hit and miss. There's so much going on that the main story is sometimes lost, and the tone alternates wildly between dark and light. At times the animals are snarly and nasty with a thirst for blood; at other times we get rapping monkeys and song ‘n dance numbers. All in all, it's a little bit ragged, which means it's hard to appreciate the story's emotional heart.

So what about the animals? Well, again, there are some hit and miss moments.

The hits are the excellent puppets (designed by Rachael Canning) which really do help to bring the jungle to life. In terms of the human performers, Ann Ogbomo is majestic as the panther, Bagheera, and Cait Davis is a wonderfully sassy snake, with more than a touch of Eartha Kitt to her Kaa. Andrew French makes his Shere Khan a true tiger villain, while Daniel Copeland's Baloo is a suitably cuddly bear. Overall, it's clear that much thought has gone into creating the feeling and movement of these animals while retaining their human characteristics.

The misses are the inexplicably track-suited monkeys who certainly provide comic relief for the kids, but who are, frankly, annoying. While he's impressively gymnastic, unfortunately Jacob James Beswick doesn't really hit the mark as Mowgli, coming across as a little too old and streetwise for the part and never really generating enough emotion.

The real star of the show is the magnificent set, which outdoes even the Playhouse's usually high standard and incites more than one impressed gasp from audience members as they settle into their seats. Designer, Laura Hopkins, has used the cavernous Quarry Theatre space to great effect; creating a wonderful jungle playground that calls out to the younger members of the audience to clamber on and start exploring.

Of course, in a show like this, there needs to be enough to keep adults and kids entertained, and there's rarely a dull moment throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time, with plenty of colourful characters popping up, and some fine physical humour and movement (as you'd expect from Steel, who is also a highly respected choreographer and movement director).

Advertised as suitable for children over seven years of age, it's worth pointing out that there are a few scary and violent moments; however, this is true family entertainment with a message. It won't be to everyone's taste (especially for those of us who have a soft spot for the Disney film), but this version certainly strives to leave audiences with something to think about, as well as feeling as though they've enjoyed a good night out at the theatre.

The Jungle Book is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 18 January 2014.