Theatre / The Jungle Book Young Vic, London

Kipling's The Jungle Book is one of that dispiritingly large group of children's classics that live constantly in the shadow of a Disney version; and while the literary originals of Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan have managed to maintain an independent existence, it's probably the case that most children know about Kipling's characters only through their much thinner, lighter screen incarnations.

The problem is that Kipling is not really a children's writer, at least as we understand the term today. His jungle is a very dark, dense place, with a prose style to match; he offers few concessions to a child's vocabulary or sense of humour (just as well, given that his jokes tend to be rather grim and unfunny affairs). Understandably, most versions of The Jungle Book opt for some sort of compromise between Kipling and Disney, trying to borrow at least some of the cute charm of the cartoon - that was even true of Michael Berkeley's serious-minded opera of a couple of years ago, Baa Baa Black Sheep, with its animal costumes and the comical capers of the human characters.

Given this history of watered-down Kipling, Tim Supple's staging comes as a very pleasant surprise. Rather than relying on cute animals to grab the attention, he relies on the driving narrative of the books, even preserving huge chunks of Kipling's prose: rather than being an adorable little boy, Ronny Jhutti's Mowgli is a brashly assertive youth learning uncomfortable truths about love, pain and duty. And there are no masks or gaudy scenery. Instead, the action takes place in an arena of red sand, with a metal bridge running overhead; and the various kinds of animal are suggested by the actors through movement and dress - a long tiger-skin coat for Shere Khan, monkish brown robes for Baloo and, a little more puzzlingly, mohicans, baggy sweaters and 16-hole Docs for the wolves. This isn't always effective; but at its best - as in Andy Williams's stately, gracefully camp performance as Kaa, the python - it is both thrilling and funny.

The most serious criticism of the production is that at times the action dispenses with some of the shades of feeling present in the stories. When the Bandar-Log - the monkey people - kidnap Mowgli and carry him off through the tree-tops, the spoken narrative gives you a sense of the grace and the excitement of their headlong progress; but at the same time, what you're actually seeing is merely frenetic.

Still, for admirers of Kipling - despite a revival of academic interest in recent years, still the most underrated author this country has produced - it is a pleasure to see how near this production gets to the heart of the stories. The really unexpected part is how well an unexpurgated version seemed to work for even the younger children in the audience, the complexities of the writing mostly made up for by the speed of the action and, it has to be admitted, a couple of interpolated bottom and poo jokes - I could have lived without the donkey-dung routine in the second half. Then again, since Kipling makes so few concessions to children, in this case you're prepared to forgive the director if he makes a few of his own.

n To 27 Jan 1996. Booking: 0171-928 6363

ROBERT HANKS

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