Review: Jungle Book, London Wonderground

*Originally published by A Younger Theatre*

I’ll admit I was concerned about a mash up of hip-hop, dance-theatre and narrative-circus. To add to that, the show is an adaptation of my favourite childhood film The Jungle Book (originally a book by Rudyard Kipling, I know, I know). How could Metta Theatre – a small production company who straddle dramatic forms – deal with so much content? The show is the final part of Metta 10: a series of ten productions staged across one year to celebrate the company’s tenth birthday. I was probably about ten when I last loved the film, so that’s kinda neat.

We are transposed, in spoken word at least, to an urban jungle where each animal from the original story becomes a unique form of dance or movement. There’s a lovely conceit of learning and growing up as Mowgli (here played by and as a girl) is taught the moves for each of the animal dances by the wolf pack who have adopted her. Costumes serve to loosely indicate the kind of character. Wolves have a smattering of grey fur on their track suits. Shere Khan the Tiger, a rapper played by Dean Stewart, has a tiger print fur wrapped around his waist. Some characters are indicated more implicitly. Baloo (Stefan Puxon) is a street cleaner and our narrator, whose cleaning trolley has the name upon it. There are certainly children in the audience who will be young enough that if they hadn’t seen the film would have find some of these insinuations hard to gather. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, though, if they don’t know Baloo was a originally a bear or that Mowgli is a child brought up by wolves.

… Because the story goes beyond that to highlight the childhood of its young female protagonist (a nice touch) through dance, movement and circus – accompanied only where needed by rhyming spoken word. Natalie Nicole James gives Mowgli a sweetness that is completely arresting, handling her acrobatic floor work and aerial dance with smooth skill and easy agility. Her technical (circus) skill in particular is beautiful to watch. Music box tunes accompanying her solos are a brilliant to contrast to the stronger hip hop soundtrack, emphasising her youth. Her cuteness nearly beats the adorable red puffer onesie puppet used to convey Mowgli as a toddler taken in by the wolf family.

It is unfortunate that, later in the story, an aerial hoop duo with her new found friend in the city works so well dramaturgically, but the disparity in physical skill between James and Nathalie Alison is self-evident. Although, as the snake-like Kaa, Alison shows better control on Chinese pole – here cleverly disguised as a lamppost. There is a similar difference in competence between the male and female wolf, Matt Knight and Ellen Wolf. Knight’s b-boying and tricking are outstanding feats. The children’s faces in the audience are aghast as they watch him flip and turn; one little boy’s jaw dropped every time Knight was dancing.

The chorus dances are choreographed well by Kendra K Horsburgh to capture the business of the city and the uniqueness of each animalistic character. An ensemble of “suits” both rigid and dynamic are a highlight. I did find it difficult, though, to remember that we aren’t watching actors portraying animals in a jungle but urban dancers in a city. Perhaps more could have been done with the set and sound designs to indicate place; there was certainly little to distinguish between the urban jungle and the “other” place whether Mowlgi was reunited with her mother.

The production is let down most significantly but its moralising conclusion. For a production, and indeed a company, whose method is not primarily verbal or conversational, the final word that the “truth” was about having a “voice” and a “choice” seems absurd and entirely unrelated to everything we had just been watching. The brilliance of a company like Metta Theatre is that they can tell stories that go beyond words and verbal explanation. That, I think, should have been the inspiration to their young audience; that art needn’t articulate only something that can be expressed in so many words but that they can show and tell stories with their bodies too.

Jungle Book, by Metta Theatre, is playing at London Wonderground until 28 August to conclude its nationwide tour.

Image by Richard Davenport

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