I agree with Tez Ilyas, the best Disney film of all time is The Jungle Book. Great songs, great characters, terrific suspense; and how I cried the first time I saw it when I thought Baloo had died. (Spoiler alert – he isn’t dead.) Over the years it’s certainly captured the imagination of generations, from those early Kipling years (my favourite – Rikki Tikki Tavi) through Disney and beyond into other spin offs, on the large and small screen, both animated and real action. Since 1894 we’ve made friends with Mowgli and cheered him on against Shere Khan and either welcomed him back to the man village or regretted his decision not to be a bear with Baloo, depending on your level of maturity.
Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling stories for this year’s Royal Theatre Christmas Play, nicely draws from all the original source materials and not just the Disney film. There’s a lot more about Akela and the wolf pack which is often overlooked; Shere Khan is menacing the jungle right from the start, there are no vultures or elephants, and it’s his mother to whom Mowgli is drawn in the man village rather than the potential girlfriend material of the Disney film. Joe Stilgoe has written some brand new and high quality songs, so you can forget the Bear Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You – it’s Mowgli who gets all the best numbers, including a recurrent theme whose name I can’t remember – the wolf howl one – but with a brilliant hook that I’m still singing to myself three days later. Peter McKintosh’s moving set has all the attributes of a series of climbing frames that create all the branches and clearings of the jungle.
As with the best of these Christmas productions, the play has a very warm and positive message to impart. Mowgli is different from his brothers and sisters in the wolf pack (there’s a good reason for that – he isn’t one) and the message is that it’s okay to be different. When they’re assessing who might be good stand-in parents for Mowgli, it’s pointed out that it’s perfectly okay for Mowgli to have two daddies, if that’s the best way of bringing him up, or two mummies. Enlightenment indeed, and hurrah for that. But I can’t help but think that Kipling would have been nonplussed at the prospect.
Unfortunately, the performance we saw on Sunday afternoon was interrupted by a technical problem. Mowgli was just performing her (yes her) first round of wolf howl refrains when her microphone failed and half the lighting fizzed out. It was a good twenty minutes before they could get the show going again, and it really did affect the building momentum of the storyline. Everyone handled it with consummate professionalism though, and I appreciated one of the monkeys confessing that it was all his fault for chewing through some electric cables backstage.
Keziah Joseph plays Mowgli ostensibly as a boy or as a tomboy girl if you prefer – it doesn’t really matter which – and she’s excellent. She has a great voice, a mischievous stage presence and she really gets the audience on her side as she fights to survive in the jungle. There are some superb supporting performances, including Dyfrig Morris as a perpetually hungry and greedy Baloo, with insufficient intelligence to be a good father to Mowgli, and he knows it (which is ironic, really); Rachel Dawson as a surprisingly charming Kaa, sporting her long snaky body as though it were some Burlesque Boa (geddit); Tripti Tripuraneni as a serious and earnest Akela, and Lloyd Gorman as the brash and brutal Shere Khan. If the late Lemmy from Motorhead appeared as a panto villain – I think you get the picture. But my favourite of all is the sassy and streetwise performance by Deborah Oyelade as Bagheera; she’s rather like one of your stricter teachers but with a heart of gold.
This is a very enjoyable, well-constructed show, perfect for a Christmas outing – although, like a dog, it isn’t just for Christmas. In the new year it’s on quite a tour, so between January and May you can catch it at Chichester, Richmond, Liverpool, High Wycombe, Bromley, Malvern, Cambridge, Newcastle, Plymouth, Norwich, Nottingham, Canterbury, Salford and Blackpool. Great fun for a family theatrical treat.