The Jungle Book

Drawing on Rudyard Kiplings original stories, this production has something for everyone

Don't let the colouring-plate aesthetic of The Jungle Book's leaflets and programme book fool you. The Lyric Theatre's production is not something for kids to alleviate summer-break boredom and for parents to endure. It is a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age tale about a lost boy finding his identity, struggling for survival and having to deal with matters of life and death in the process.

It's suitable for young and old, though the littlest are best kept at home.One dad is singing 'The Bare Necessities' to his kids on the way into the theatre, but the Lyric's production of The Jungle Book is in no way comparable to the movie from Walt Disney. He told his animation crew to throw away Kipling's book.

The set is all odd angles and corners. There are dangling vines and stylised, menacing-looking trees, blending seamlessly with the interior of the new Lyric, where no angle is straight. A small brook and a jagged stage edge turn the dark orchestra pit into a deep lake, theatrical smoke minimises the barrier between stage and audience even further.

This lack of boundaries is even more apparent when the tiger Shere Khan (Pete Ashmore) arrives from the back of the theatre. He's a nasty old thing, all raking claws and cutting declarations. The wisdom of the show's billing, suitable for children of six and over, is proven when several terrified toddlers have to be removed by their parents.

In writing the play, Neil Duffield drew on all eight stories from both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. The end result is a well-plotted story, enlivened by great use of the minimal sets, sound design and lighting to shift scene and mood.

Director Richard Croxford takes his time in establishing the setting and the story's premise, with baby Mowgli hidden in the jungle by his forlorn mother (Karen Rush) when Shere Khan attacks. Adaptable scenery and clever staging let Mowgli age from babe-in-arms to athletic youth in seconds. His adoption by the wolves introduces us to the jungle's characters.

Children in the audience will mainly identify with Mowgli (Tony Hasnath), sympathise with the bear Baloo (Gerard McCabe) as the funny but trustworthy big-brother figure, and look up to the panther Bagheera (Sioned Saunders). 

There are plenty more characters and all of them are portrayed by six actors. It's not realism that is aimed for, but suspension of disbelief -  aided by quick costume changes and the power of suggestion.

When Akela (Rush again) speaks the law in an evocation of tribal ceremony there are only two other actors on stage. A full pack of wolves is suggested by burning eyes in the scenery, and the various wolf voices that are projected from offstage. More than a few kids were alarmed by these howls and growls. That's ok. This jungle is never meant to be completely safe, and the play doesn't mollycoddle its audience.

Tension builds when Mowgli learns about the dangers of fire. Red lights swirl and tumble, effectively consuming the set. Surely a few little ones in the audience are warned against getting their fingers burned!

It is a relief when the monkeys show up. Most of their number are cut-outs, but suspending them over the audience's heads goes down great with the kids. There's laughter too, when Baloo sneaks into the humans' village, hiding behind a single twig.

That only six actors play a whole panoply of characters is impressive, that they also provide the music and sound effects is an effort we appreciate. While we see a piper and fiddler onstage, the offstage percussion and piano could so easily have been recorded samples. Instead they are obviously performed live by absent cast members. It adds to the atmosphere in the theatre.

The visual style, meanwhile, is equally inventive, with the use of a Balinese shadow puppet a particular surprise. Impressive too is the wolf pack's Council Rock, which rotates to reveal a Meso-American-style stone head as the characters arrive in a ruined city.

Here, the darker side of Kipling's books comes into play. The tragic Kaa appears, dutifully guarding the treasures of a city that has long fallen, and Mowgli is confronted with his humanity.

The Jungle Book constantly manages to play on two different levels. Children laugh when the village's martinet leads a hunt for big game, with his people playing drums and cymbals and chanting of 'Sergeant Major is our hero'. Meanwhile, the adult audience can appreciate the comment on the folly of blind obedience to our leaders and (perhaps) on British colonialism.

The writing and direction are good. But it's the actors who have accomplished something to be really proud of.

The Jungle Book can still be enjoyed at the Lyric Theatre until August 14.