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The Jungle Book, theatre review: 'The steamy Indian jungle brought imaginatively to life'

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Forget about Disney’s 1967 animated feelgood classic this is a tale as dark as the blackhole of Calcutta. But don’t let that put you off.

Walt, who died during the production of his reworking of Kipling’s Raj fables, found the source material too grim for his target audience.

He sought amends by recruiting wisecracking band leader Phil Harris, King of Swing Louis Prima and even the animated Beatles to smooth the sharper edges on the unsettling themes of identity, transition and betrayal.

Director Liam Steel, choreographer for the Bafta and Oscar-winning film version of Les Miserables, does not dodge the challenge and employs the capacious setting of the Quarry Theatre to fine effect to make his point.

The steamy Indian jungle and its array of inhabitants are brought imaginatively to life. Steel deploys drums, some beautiful singing by Japjit Kaur, dancing, stilt walking and puppetry to animate the characters and transport us beneath the canopy.

The first half of the show is set in the animal kingdom switching to the human domain for its climax. Jacob James Beswick is an agile man cub Mowgli, scampering athletically across the branches and swinging on dangling lianas like junior Tarzan.

Baloo, his guru and guide, is a more conventional stilted figure in a bear suit whilst Andrew French’s loping, powerful Shere Khan, teetering on running blades -  brings copious quantities of tigerish menace to the jungle’s top predator. Ann Ogbomo’s panther Bagheera is part protector part sleek, strutting dominatrix.

Kaa the slithering python (like Bagheera written by Kipling as a male) is in this instance entertainingly played as a faded grande dame whose long body is carted somewhat unceremoniously around the stage by helpers.

The wolf pack meanwhile are a motley and scavenging crew, their red eyes glowing chillingly though trees as they first adopt and then abandon the human thrust into their midst.

But the monkeys are the show’s real stars although their big number was rather let down by muddy sound quality. The troop is characterised as a bling-sporting rap crew which – miraculously – does not patronise the young audience with its attempts at street cool but is instead genuinely funny.

Yet for all its darkness The Jungle Book did not frighten the most junior members of the family audience who were left mulling but not traumatised by Mowgli’s plight on another evening of ambitious spectacle in Leeds.

West Yorkshire Playhouse to 18 January