Just So at the Watermill, Newbury – review

Stiles and Drewe’s reimagining of Kipling’s classic tales returns

The cast of Just So
The cast of Just So
© Pamela Raith

Rudyard Kipling told his Just So Stories to his little daughter at bedtime, publishing them first in 1902. In 1989, George Stiles' and Anthony Drewe's musical take on five tales was first performed at The Watermill. Now, in Abigail Pickard Price's vibrant new outdoor production, billed as a semi-staged concert, the threat of climate change gives their retelling new relevance.

From a company of nine multi-talented actor/musicians clad in colourful dungarees on designer Katie Lias' set crammed with inviting instruments,
Nathanael Campbell's authoritative Eldest Magician detaches himself, to don the mantle and open the storybook that will take his audience on a journey. We'll find ourselves yomping across the jungles and plains of Africa to Kipling's "great grey-green greasy Limpopo River" seeking the Crab who is causing devastating floods.

First, he takes us back to the "Time of the Very Beginnings", when he helps all earth's creatures to find their individuality and introduces the brave little Elephant's Child. Helped by the exotic Kolokolo Bird, she leads the dangerous quest, joined en route by a motley selection of daft – and sometimes dangerous – animals.

The description ‘semi-staged' short-changes this joyous action-packed show. Performers move from one fantastical location to another and morph into various real and imaginary beasts with winning verve, playing a dizzying range of instruments and executing choreographer Chi-San Howard's moves, from simple to intricate, with exhilarating high energy. They take the action in amongst the trees in the Watermill's gardens and the tables seating the audience.

The cast flag up location changes by holding up brightly-coloured posters reminiscent of children's storybook illustrations, labelled ‘The Veldt', ‘The Jungle'.

First stop for Eleanor Kane's plucky, appealing Elephant Child and Emma Lucia's flighty (pun intended!), flamingo-pink Kolokolo Bird is the apparently uninhabited island on which they find themselves washed up. It's the domain of wonderfully exotic Parsee Man (Dan De Cruz, also MD and keyboards), relaxing with a cocktail and served by his faithful Cooking Stove, embodied by Peter Mooney, topped off with Chef's Hat. Their ska-flavoured numbers are among the show's musical highlights.

The journey gets complicated as the travellers encounter a variety of animals, including the hunter big cats (Kemi Clarke's menacing leopard and De Cruz's scarily swift jaguar) and the hunted (daft and delicious – if the hunters get their prey – Zebra and Giraffe). These fast-moving grazers are brilliantly brought to life as ditzy Essex girls, with appropriate striped and spotted accessories, by Laura Andresen Guimarães (Zebra) and Emma Jane Morton (Giraffe), riffing on sax, clarinet, flute, oboe and keys. The predators' brilliantly menacing number ‘We Want to Take the Ladies Out', with its disturbingly ambiguous title, and the ‘ladies' fast-moving response ‘Pick Up Your Hooves' provide more musical delight.

Many more brilliantly conceived beasts add to this menagerie: drum virtuoso Alexander Bean's scary deep-voiced great Rhino; Peter Mooney's Aussie-accented kangaroo, with cork-strung hat and thigh-padded fawn dungarees, in boxers' stand-off with Morton's Yellow Dingo; and Campbell's Magician conjuring the jaws of the crocodile that haunts Kipling's Limpopo River by snapping shut a travelling-case on Elephant Child's nose, till she bravely pull hard to escape (yes, that's how the elephant got his trunk, oh Best Beloved!).

‘Just So' are the delights in store for audiences in a show that makes its climate-change warning message memorable by delivering it with wonderful storytelling and the lightest family-friendly touch.

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