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Review: The Jungle Book (Richmond Theatre)

Jessica Swale adapts Kipling's classic with music by Joe Stilgoe

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome to the jungle – and in this new version from Jessica Swale, it's not always fun and games.

Rudyard Kipling's classic set of tales has seen many iterations over the last century, with the most obvious examples being the much treasured animated Disney film, a celebration of the ingenuity of humanity, and Jon Favreau's 2016 CGI-fest of an adaptation, extolling the importance of thinking environment-first in the face of human progress. Swale, known for her celebrated Blue Stockings and Nell Gwynn, goes for a slightly different angle in this new UK tour directed by Max Webster.

The story is largely recognisable – Mowgli, the young orphan boy found by a pack of wolves, is adopted by Bagheera the panther and Balloo the bear, in what becomes an unorthodox and fractious family unit. From there, Mowgli grows up in the company of a panoply of different animals, all willing to either befriend or eat our intrepid protagonist.

Swale teases fresh ideas out of a story you may think you know already. It feels largely contemporary – a celebration of diversity and the power of family, no matter what form it takes. As the dictatorial and bloodthirsty Shere Khan puts it, 'difference is dangerous'; plurality can be powerful. There are a string of serious messages at the heart of the text – Mowgli's refusal to be a part of mankind, a part of the species known for killing animals, feels incredibly pertinent. As the jungle dries up and food becomes scarce, the bleaker references to deforestation and climate change are also emphasised.

Webster assembles a thrumming and non-stop ensemble of 11 actor-musicians, each jumping from instrument to instrument as rapidly as they perform animal after animal. One moment they're the funkeys (funky monkeys), the next they're members of Mowgli's wolf pack. The whole forest teems with life. Gone are the Sherman Brothers' classic tunes, replaced by some earnest and heartswelling numbers from composer Joe Stilgoe, all marimba and strings, with an electric mix of styles (why wouldn't Balloo sing the blues (the Bal-lues)?).

Keziah Joseph's spritely and jovial Mowgli is the perfect protagonist for the family show, while Dyfrig Morris's Balloo and Deborah Oyelade's Bagheera tick over nicely as the pseudo-parents in the strange family. Lloyd Gorman's moustachio'd Khan, dressed in a sequined orange jumpsuit (or maybe a leotard), may not cut it as the most intimidating of carnivorous villains, but his murderous actions speak louder than his get-up.

Peter McKintosh's jungle gym set, all bars and boscage, provides the perfect revolving climbing frame for Mowgli's adventures, allowing the spectacle to slickly move across different levels. There are some odd beats – the slightly graphic murdering of a deer feels a bit off-kilter, but Swale has given us a Jungle Book for the present day, one ready to enchant and educate in equal measure.

The Jungle Book is touring the UK until May 2018.

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