BWW Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK, Royal and Derngate
My first ever Christmas theatre experience was in the Royal Theatre in Northampton - back when they had a celebrity panto in the Derngate and a traditional panto in the Royal.
These days, the celebs still tread the Derngate stage at Christmas, but the Royal showcases the production house's original work. This year, it's a new musical adaptation of The Jungle Book written by Jessica Swale (Nell Gywn), who also co-wrote the lyrics with composer Joe Stilgoe.
This struck me as a brave decision, because the principal problem with any adaptation of The Jungle Book is overcoming the audience's subconscious expectation that in a minute the Disney songs are going to start. While Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had been adapted many times before they were Disney films and have been many times since, The Jungle Book feels incredibly tied to the cartoon version - and it's only a year since that was turned into a live action film.
So, credit to this production that it didn't take me very long to stop expecting Baloo to burst into "Bare Necessities" and relax into the new songs instead - which definitely aren't trying to be copycats. They're fun and hummable, and by the time you walk out at the end, you feel like you knew them before you went in. The cast sing them well, and if the performance I saw had occasional sound balance problems, making the lyrics a little hard to hear at times, it didn't mar my enjoyment.
Led by Keziah Joseph as Mowgli, the cast are excellent, dancing, singing, operating puppets and in some cases playing instruments as well. I thought the opening, showing puppet baby Mowgli (designed by Nick Barnes) growing up was particularly effective, but my four-year-old guest found it a little scary and overwhelming at first.
However, he settled down once Dyfrig Morris as Baloo appeared, and spent most of the rest of the show spellbound. I loved Deborah Oyelade's Bagheera - her fierce attitude masking her deep care for her charge and complementing Morris's bear's easy, laidback attitude. The ensemble's performances - along with Peter McKintosh's costumes - were good enough that my companion's mum didn't notice that the wolves and the monkeys were the same actors at first.
McKintosh's clever revolving set looks like a giant wooden climbing frame (my young guest asked his mum if he could have one at home!) and transforms to great effect to portray the various different forest locations as well as The Man-village. The monkey gang's antics were a favourite with the younger members of the audience and were the closest the show got to panto, but I didn't feel like I was missing out on Christmas-themed fun.
As the show has a national tour after its Northampton run, it's probably not a surprise that it isn't the most festive-feeling production, but if you're looking for a show to take all the family to, this really hits the spot. There's a great balance between keeping the interest of the children, but not being too simple for the adults. The four-year-old's verdict? "I liked the farting monkeys, but Shere Khan was scary." What more could you want?
The Jungle Book at Royal and Derngate until 31 December and then touring
Picture Credit: Manuel Harlan