The Jungle Book (Richmond Theatre)

The Jungle Book (Richmond Theatre, until February 10th)

A creative and lively new take on Kipling’s The Jungle Book ensures there’s more than a little animal magic conjured up at Richmond Theatre – and it’s a million miles away from the celebrated Disney cartoon classic.

Audiences familiar only with the Disney animated version won’t find even a smattering of bare necessities, but thanks to a contemporary king of the swingers, composer Joe Stilgoe, you are guaranteed to go out humming at least some of the fresh and catchy songs. Admittedly, someone in the audience started singing “Look for the ba…..” as Baloo’s big number was introduced, but they quickly shut up when they realised the music in this show was not going to repeat any Phil Harris or Louis Prima gems, but come up with something new and just as enjoyable.

Launched at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, this production is on a national tour that introduces youngsters to the storytelling craft of Rudyard Kipling and bubbles over from page to stage with energy and fun. While some moments draw inspiration from bigger West End musicals, this is no little Lion King, but a solid new show with tremendous rhythm and colour in its own right.

If you are too young to appreciate the message of family, friendship and the idea that there’s nothing wrong in being different as long as you remember who you are, then you will nevertheless enjoy the antics of the naughty funky monkeys and the comic charm of Baloo the bear. There is definitely something here for all the family.

The story is very simply told, helped along by the excellent songs, and outstanding set and costume design by Peter McKintosh – the jungle resembles an adventure playground while the outfits range from fuzzy dungarees to sinister motorbike leathers.

There are plenty of present day twists – there’s a distinct sense of gang culture and the demand to fit in, there’s certainly some female empowerment going on, and one of the songs even talks of a bear and panther raising the man cub among a pack of wolves as the “perfect modern family” – but nothing is driven home relentlessly. Instead, the writers get to the heart of the story in a way that is both bold and enchanting and the themes of diversity, identity, tolerance and education are realised well in Max Webster’s direction.

Man-cub Mowgli is played by Keziah Joseph as a sparky youngster on a journey of discovery, growing up among animals, which in turn develops a caring and courageous humanity. As Mowgli’s friends, Deborah Oyelade as Bagheera and Dyfrig Morris as Baloo are a perfect pairing. Oyelade is a slinky black panther with wisdom and strength, while Morris creates an instantly lovable Welsh bear, always hungry for honey and wonderfully childlike: his clever second act opener “I guess that’s why they call it the Baloos” is but one example of exquisite performance and brilliantly witty songwriting.

Lloyd Gorman is a glorious leather-clad villain in Shere Khan, looking for all the world like an evil biker – Hell’s Tigers, perhaps – and he gets a great song, Raw, executed with menace.  Rachel Dawson is all of a slither as the sensually hypnotic python Kaa, while Tripti Tripuraneni brings a depth of character to Akela.

With most of the 11-strong cast doubling up roles, and occasionally playing instruments, this is a notable and dedicated ensemble piece with a stirring lilt and endearing sentiment. Diogo Gomes is outstanding on percussion, giving the whole production a rich and top-tapping bounce.

There’s a nice, neat opening and closing framework which underlines the idea of belonging and home being where the heart is without dragging the piece into the unbearably mawkish.

The biggest stars of this show, though, are the writers. Swales constantly moves the action along though never loses the comic touch, while every one of Stilgoe’s dozen new songs is cracking and they stay in the head long after you leave the theatre.

There’s another production of The Jungle Book doing the rounds which is probably more geared to younger audiences – but this has a heartwarming style and family appeal of its own.

This Jungle Book relates the law of the jungle for a new generation, is never less than original, and beats out its story and themes with an engaging tempo.

Image: Manuel Harlan

David Guest

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub