THEATRE The critics: The bare necessities of Kipling

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THE programme lists eight actors and no animals. There are no scene changes and very few props. There's only a circular space, like a circus arena, with ochre earth, a rock and a tank of water. Over this runs a metal gangway. Yet somehow, during the matinee performance of The Jungle Book to which I went - and several hundred schoolchildren can vouch for this too - we spent two hours in the jungles of central India.

We saw the Seeonee Wolf Pack meet at the Council Rock and deliberate over the fate of the man-cub Mowgli. We saw the monkeys, the Bandar-log, overcome Baloo, the bear, and Bagheera, the panther, and drag Mowgli off to the echoey prison of the Cold Lairs. We saw, too, the rock python, Kaa, scatter the Bandar-log and perform the sinuous Dance of the Hunger of Kaa. We were there, finally, at the edge of the ravine when the buffaloes stampeded and trampled the tiger, Shere Khan, to death.

Someone arriving late might only have seen a beaky guy with a mohican tuft, grey sweatshirt and boots, perched on a stone. But that was the old wolf, Akela (Eric Mallett). The guy with a beard and a corduroy duffle coat, that was Baloo (Simon Coury). The guy with a bald head, who stuck out his tongue and slowly wielded a long, bendy pole over the heads of the audience, that was the python Kaa (Andy Williams). A late-comer might have entered the darkness to find figures in tracksuits with miner's lamps on their foreheads and ropes round their bodies, which they twitched like tails, racing round the auditorium. The Bandar-log were on the rampage.

For Tim Supple's hugely enjoyable production is storytelling at its most theatrical. A hoop stands for the entrance of the cave. When Mother Wolf (Sarah C Cameron) suckles her cubs, she has her arms round a grey blanket which contains one actor pushing in all directions. When Mowgli (Ronny Jhutti) cries for the first time, a mug of water splashes off his face. The Cold Lairs is a shaft of light, but when Kaa destroys the Lairs, dust sprinkles down from the gangway. It spoils the magic of the performance to mention rituals, classical dance, mime and traditional music, but all these elements - as the programme biographies make clear - infuse Supple's resonant production and make it a place where the imagination takes flight on the back of Kipling's prose.

Supple has reassembled the team that produced last year's acclaimed Grimm Tales. As well as the congas, bongos and tom-toms, the musicians, on raised platforms either side of the stage, surround the action with Indian and Japanese instruments with names that sound like homeopathic drugs: kecapi, berimbau, hira daiko, pena and bamsuri. Paule Constable's lighting design has the range of a rock show, but here, like the music, it doesn't advertise itself: it continually shapes and focuses our attention, creating the dramatic space through which Kipling's narrative flows. The music, composed by Adrian Lee, and sound design, by John A Leonard, bring us into a world where we can imagine Mowgli learning "every rustle in the grass, every breath of the warm night air".

The creative team provides the platform, while never overwhelming the performances. Central to the production is the actors' ability to make the audience listen and follow the richness of the story. This they do very well. For those who are mystified by all the fuss over The Wind in the Willows, which has moved into its fifth elaborate and highly praised season, here is a vigorous, imaginative and unsentimental alternative. Wondering what Supple and his team will do next almost makes one look forward, beyond this Christmas, to the one after that.

This winter, director David Farr has produced two plays by the Spanish playwright Ramon del Valle Inclan, translated into an Irish idiom by David Johnston. They are big, cinematic affairs that brim with the violent, superstitious and religious qualities of rural Galician life. They are also, arguably, unstageable. So it is an act of quixotic courage to mount them in a small theatre like the Gate. The first play, Silverface, sprawled and lurched explosively round this L-shaped room. When characters attacked each other you worried for your own safety. The second production, Ballad of Wolves, is far more satisfying.

This is a fringe blockbuster that's larger than some West End musicals. If you were to stand 21 people in a row, that would be exactly the width of the stage. We know this because at the end a cast of 21 line up to take their bow. There are still so many characters in the script that some appear as puppets.

As Don Juan, Donald Sumpter has the force to intimidate his rapacious, looting sons, as well as the intelligence to make his spiritual anguish as he approaches death absorbing. It would be an understatement to say that we get drawn into this: we are surrounded by it. The walls are a wooden stockade and actors push their heads through gaps, emerge from under the floorboards, and appear from behind your head or next to your shoulder. Yes, it's stageable.

Bernard Shaw's The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles is a subversive comic fable, which Shaw wrote when he was 79. It takes place in a tropical outpost of the British Empire, where a priest (Raad Rawi) and a priestess (Kate O'Mara) set up a community with some English expatriates to produce children that bring together East and West. Then the Day of Judgement arrives.

What's more curious than this rare Shaw revival is why director Sam Walters chose it. His theatre-in-the-round invites a close awareness of each character on stage. This worked very well with The Maitlands. But Shaw has so little interest in his characters even when they're speaking that there is nothing to be gained by observing them at close quarters. In the text Shaw gives lavish stage directions ("the lawn of a stately house ... the western face of the house is reached by a terrace and flight of steps ... the harbour is crowded with cruisers ..."). For once, it would have been better to sit a long way back, and take in the tirelessly provocative Shaw while also taking in the view.

'The Jungle Book': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363). 'Ballad of Wolves': Gate, W11 (0171 229 0706). 'The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles': Richmond Orange Tree (0181 940 3633).

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