On the day I saw The Jungle Book at Richmond Theatre, I read three items in “The Times” that illustrated the interconnectedness of all things and all of us in our global village. Two were appropriately about tigers and the third was about early man. The tiger stories obviously bring to mind Shere Khan, the villain in The Jungle Book and the story about The Cheddar Gorge Man remind us of the biological fact that we are all one people. First the two Tiger stories. A farmer mistook a stuffed tiger for the real thing and armed police responded to his call. The second tiger story that caught my attention comes from India where the biggest tiger census in the world aims to count as accurately as possible the number of tigers in the wild in India. Shere Khan lives and is thriving. Numbers are up, it is thought there are up to 3,000 tigers in India. The third story is that the 10,000 year old Cheddar Man has been reconstructed by scientists and they suggest that he had dark skin and blue eyes. These themes of the animal kingdom and the oneness of humanity are brilliantly realised on the stage in “The Jungle Book” now on at the Richmond Theatre.
The writer Jessica Swale has taken Rudyard Kipling’s original stories and adapted them for our times. She has succeeded with flying colours. Her conception of the stories comes across powerfully and emotionally. The animals are so vividly realised that I totally believed in them. The wolf pack is so convincing that I willingly suspended my disbelief and accepted that yes they would care for Mowgli (Keziah Joseph) the Man Cub. In her programme notes Jessica says that she wanted to say something inspiring about community, compassion, immigration, diversity and unity. She has done all this and more. What I took from the evening was that we are all one. The animals and humans. We share the earth and must live as one. The multicultural casting is wonderful. The sense of humanity as one family, comes across powerfully and forcefully. At the end as I walked out of the theatre I saw that diversity reflected in the audience and the feeling of oneness was palpable. The compassion and the love that she wanted to create was indeed created by the audience in the theatre. It was magic.
A vital ingredient of the plays success are the original songs that Joe Stigloe has written. As Joe puts it so well “I’ve written all new music with a wide range of influences from all over the world. Our jungle spreads way beyond the confines of India, becoming a global jungle for everyone.” I went with the Disney tunes in my head but was delighted to hear new songs that were fresh and innovative. The actor musicians who perform live on stage deserve a mention. Rachel Dawson, Diogo Gomes, Lloyd Gorman, TJ Holmes and Dyfrig Morris are exceptional. So I take my hat off to Jessica and Joe they have created a wonderful take on Kipling’s stories and Disney’s capturing of them in the famous animated film version.
The direction by Max Webster is wonderfully brisk and economical. He pushes the action along so that you are out by 9 o’clock and that includes a twenty minute interval. There were many children in the audience, some in their cubs and Brownies uniforms, so I imagine that parents were pleased with the early finish. Seeing the children in the uniforms reminded me that Baden Powell founded the Boy Scout movement and that Kipling fully supported him and allowed Baden Powell to use the idea of the Wolf Cubs with Akela as the leader.
There is so much to be savoured in this show. Lloyd Gorman as Shere Khan in his black jump suit with orange stripes is an effective villain with just the right mixture of sinister bully and paper tiger. Whether intentionally or not he reminded me of Alvin Stardust without the black glove and microphone. Dyfrig Morris as a Welsh comic Balloo is a delight, especially in his relationship with Bagheera (Deborah Oyelade) as two bickering parents struggle to explain to Mowgli that he is “um a Man!”
Of course Keziah Joseph’s Mowgli is a tour de force. She convinces in every scene. We are with her as she howls like a wolf and runs with the pack, we feel for as she realizes that she is not a wolf and we are with her when she embraces her human mother (“a man woman”) in the final scene. Dare I say it – a star in the making? Don’t take my word for it, go along and see for yourself. On every day this week at the Richmond Theatre. I saw Clive Anderson in the interval. So perhaps he will have something to say about the show on Loose Ends on Radio 4 this Saturday?
By John O’Brien