The Jungle Book, Royal Theatre, Northampton

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The Independent Culture

Where to begin heaping praise on this production?

Where to begin heaping praise on this production? Jude Akuwudike's elegant Hathi the elephant and wise Akela? Or Alex de Marcus's gun-swivelling tiger-hunter, wittily tracking himself as the shivering, merciless, man-eating Shere Khan? Miltos Yerolemou's bubbly Baloo the bear, bane of bees? Georgina Roberts's protective wolf mother, Raksha, and curling Kaa the snake? Or the man-cub himself, the rangy, scrounging Mowgli (Arnie Hewitt), on whom all but the tiger take pity?

Even as Chichester is rediscovering his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is back again, in a new and wonderful guise, given glorious life by Rosanna Lowe's sensitive, animal-empathetic production and adaptation for Northampton's buoyant Royal and Derngate Theatres. Here is a version full of love, riddled through and through with beautifully observed detail - instantly established by the designer Diego Pitarch's moon-dominated set, glowing red-eyed vulpine masks and wire-mesh elephantine headdresses.

The Jungle Book is opening in Oxford tonight and - later in the year - will tour to Warwick University Arts Centre at Coventry where it's to be the Christmas show. Don't miss it - especially if you have a child in tow between the ages of roughly five and 10. There are a couple of concessions to the youngsters (indeed Lowe could have set up even more, and earlier, audience interaction than she does - the characters, including Mowgli, need more careful introducing). But a joy of the show is that it doesn't talk down with fancy kicks or artificial colourings.

Few could match the thrice-Oscar-winning-film-composer Miklos Rozsa's score for Sir Alexander Korda's film of the book in the Forties but here the clarinettist/composer Arun Ghosh has produced a lovely score, full of effective added-note chordings and uncloying oriental lilt. Paul Dennant lights it with a seasoned intelligence, catching the open-plateau bright lights and crepuscular Indian sunsets with endless skill and exquisite variety.

Above all, this is a joyous, triumphant team effort from start to finish. All Akela's wolverine debaters - "free people met in the moonlight", from seasoned instructors to cheeky schoolkid apprentices - put in polished performances. Set-piece pow-wows are a treat, and Baloo's ursine antics are always funny, never patronising. Entertaining to hear de Marcus's bully-boy Buldeo mimicking a sub-continent accent, while Anjali Jay's charming Dulia has the real thing.

There's a lot of quiet wisdom in this show, and it's largely down not just to a gifted, clever cast but to the Royal's ability under Rupert Goold's supervision to deliver honed shows. You only have to watch these wolves move - I won't say how - for 15 seconds to realise you're in for a grand show. A great show this is - and it could get even better once small details of communication are sharpened.

Continues at Oxford Playhouse from today to Saturday (01865 305305; www.oxfordplayhouse.com)

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