There was a lot to like about this production of The Jungle Book, mainly the parts that stayed truest to the magic of the book. However, writer Stuart Paterson and director Neal Foster have taken liberties with the plot and dialogue, adding in some rather twee ‘lessons’ about finding out who you really are, and then staying true to yourself. Just because it’s aimed at kids doesn’t excuse this kind of lazy moralising, especially when the material you have to work with is already so rich.
And then there were the songs. Given that the plot has already been Disney-fied with extraneous soul-searching, BB Cooper (with “additional music” from Gidon Fineman) could have capitalised on this and gone for up-beat songs in a similar vein to the film. Instead, we are subjected to dreary songs with lyrics (Barb Jungr) ranging from bland to laughably bad and dull, forgettable melodies. Don’t get me started on the dance routines. Not only were the musical numbers cringe-worthy, but also completely unnecessary. As I said, there was much to like about this show, and the songs were an unwelcome distraction from the otherwise fun production.
It had a big heart and a huge energy, with a hard-working cast. They all looked knackered at the end, but plastered on huge, musical-theatre grins and, yes, there were jazz hands. All had pleasant enough voices, although none really shone (this may have had more to do with the songs than the singers…). Simon Hargreaves is a bouncy, childish Mowgli, full of glee at outwitting his teachers, which proved popular with the young audience. My seven-year-old companion joined in the audience-participation with enthusiasm, despite the frequency with which this was required.
The dialogue was not bad – there was some nice borrowings from Kipling and Manley Hopkins for poetic phrases and flair, but it often lapsed into cliché or just didn’t quite ring true. However, we are in the jungle with wolf-boy and a rather camp tiger (Peter Sowerbutt having immense fun as the panto villain Sheer Khan), so perhaps dialogue falling slightly flat should be overlooked. The use of mics does not encourage naturalistic interaction between the cast, but given the volume of the backing tracks and background noise (which was nicely done) it was perhaps for the best that they were miked. Although that in turn did mean that we could hear the songs…
I am being harsh. These complaints did not spoil the whole evening, they just niggled. The set and costumes were great. We got clever, raggedy animal costumes with gorgeous masks (Gemma Hughes and Tanya Felts), beautiful giant puppets and a lush, green set covered in vines and trees (Jacqueline Trousdale). The cast make the most of the few, simple blocks and props – we are asked to use our imaginations a fair amount. This led to almost manic levels of playing to the audience from the cast, which was rather over the top for my taste, but the children in the audience were loving it.
While the show did not quite hit the spot for me, I was clearly not the target audience, so it would be churlish to be too critical. I shall leave you instead with a quote from my small companion who appreciated the production more than I did: when asked what her favourite part was she replied, “The elephant and the snake and the tiger and the wolves and the monkeys and all of it!”