Theatre / The Jungle Book Young Vic, London
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
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 2 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 3 Alton Towers crash: Four seriously injured and 16 guests trapped as Smiler ride carriages collide
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Black Angel: Lost Star Wars precursor to be made into crowdfunded feature film
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers