The Jungle Book, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Thursday 18 December 2003
If, like me, you come out of the Tobacco Factory's production of The Jungle Book subliminally humming "The Bare Necessities", it is testament only to Disney's ability to sink its tendrils inextricably deep into the fabric of our childhood literature. For this production features no laid-back dancing bears or monkeys who want to be like you-hoo-hoo. This is a fresh adaptation of Kipling's tale of the little mancub Mowgli with rather less catchy songs and a considerably less saccharine approach. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that there is no hint of Disney about Dan Danson's production. But the resemblance is not to Uncle Walt's Jungle Book so much as to his corporation's stage production of The Lion King.
As with that innovative staging, this production does not seek to present the animals which make up its cast of characters in any sort of lifelike representation. Instead, just as The Lion King drew on African art to suggest the creatures of the veldt, so this production draws on traditional Indian dress in appropriate colours to shape the animals of the jungle. Combined with this is an intensive use of mammalian movement by the actors to suggest the tiger's pacing and the panther's prowl. And alongside the flesh and blood actors there are Bunraku-esque puppets, including Mugger, the snappiest crocodile you are ever likely to share a theatre with.
Whilst the puppets account for some of the roles, the cast of five still have to double up on parts to present Kipling's full story. Yet the doubling is not merely a matter of economic and logistical necessity: it also brings out the echoes in the two halves of Mowgli's life. Middleton Mann not only plays Mowgli's jungle tormentor Shere Khan, but when the mancub flees the jungle to seek refuge in the village, he reappears as the wicked uncle Buldeo. Representing the opposite pole in Mowgli's life, Katie Hiam performs both as Akela, the devoted wolf pack leader who adopts the boy, and Messua, the human mother who ultimately nurtures and protects him.
The end result is an intelligent, engaging dramatisation of a childhood classic which remains true to its Victorian roots whilst also drawing vigorously on the more relaxed and abstract conventions of 21st century theatre. If there is a caveat, it is that Toby Farrow's script contains a lot of talk between the bursts of action. Combined with the highly stylised representation of the animals, I suspect that the suggestion that this is a show for children from four up is a trifle optimistic. But mature five-year-olds and their older siblings will adore it.
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