The Jungle Book Opens at the Lyric

Listen to extracts from the show and find out why composer Conor Mitchell is attracted to the dark side

Composer Conor Mitchell knows what's 'in' at the moment in musicals and opera. 'Period stuff, adaptations, that sort of thing,' he explains. Is he missing a trick: Mad Men the Opera perhaps? 'Believe me,' he says, leaning in knowingly. 'It's probably being done already.'

Not that Mitchell is envious. By the sounds of things, he's far too busy to care. Ten Plagues, a new work co-written with Mark Ravenhill and set in Black Plague-riddled 17th century London, is about to premiere at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this August. And in Belfast, Mitchell is currently working as musical director on a new adaptation The Jungle Book at the Lyric Theatre. Busy times for Northern Ireland's busiest young composer.

The Jungle Book is the first full-scale children's production at the re-constructed Lyric Theatre, and it has Mitchell beaming. Directed by Richard Croxford, the production combines striking visuals with a talented musical cast (the six actors who play all of the parts also play all of the instruments). But it's Rudyard Kipling's original 'quest story' that has Mitchell waxing lyrical.

'It's about the individual within the foreign society who eventually grows up and walks towards the light,' says Mitchell over coffee in the Lyric's new cafe. Through the trees below us we see rowers practicing on the Lagan. 'But the decision he makes at the end is actually to return to the forest, his true home. I think we can all relate to that.'

Kids the world over will be familiar with the Disney movie version of The Jungle Book, the feel-good story of the young boy Mowgli, raised by animals in the forest, and his band of jungle-dwelling friends, including Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther.

Mitchell feels that the film has its place, and argues that the Disney version isn't a classic for nothing. However, for this new production, he cranked up the menace. His score is suitably sinister and foreboding in places (listen to extracts in the podcast above) and does not pull its punches for the little kiddies.

'Shere Khan the tiger, from who Mowgli is always on the run, is a wonderfully powerful and frightening character,' Mitchell says. 'And this production definitely draws on that darkness. It's a real roller-coaster adventure for the young audience.

'I didn't want them to sit back and get bored with the story. I wanted to grip them and take them on a journey, and if they're frightened – watching the play with their hands over their eyes – that means they'll be that much more invested in the story and its resolution.'

Writer Neil Duffield agrees that The Jungle Book has a dark side, but argues that young theatre goers will learn from Mowgli's torturous voyage toward adulthood.

'In his journey from boy to man, Mowgli has to overcome great obstacles and make difficult decisions,' said Duffield. 'He learns that life is not easy and can sometimes throw up deeply contradictory situations. More than anything he has to find out which tribe, if any, he belongs to. In this sense, Mowgli’s story is universal.'

Drawing on Kipling's own fascination with India – where Kipling was born and where The Jungle Book is ostensibly set – Mitchell immersed himself in Indian music when writing his score. He had experience of the form from previous work, but found new inspiration in a music that 'always feels fresh and new. Traditional Indian music has its own rules and scales,' he says. 'It's very dramatic, rhythmic music.

'Obviously the children who come and see the production will be familiar with Indian music, but there is that strange, foreign aspect to it, and that should add to the tension of the story.'

For the first time since its opening, the theatre’s brand new forestage will be put to use during The Jungle Book, making the performance space even bigger and showing off the theatre’s facilities in their entirety. Both Mitchell and director, Richard Croxford, believe that a family production of this scale will attract audiences of all ages during the summer months.

'It’s a bold step for the Lyric to produce a summer musical on this scale,' said Croxford, 'but it is obviously extremely important to us that we have a show on stage for our audiences as many weeks of the year as possible.

'It gives families something to do during the summer holidays and the more cultural product Northern Ireland has on offer in July and August, the better we can market ourselves as thriving tourism destination.'

However many people show up to watch it, The Jungle Book is sure to be one of the more exciting productions in the Lyric Theatre this year.

The Jungle Book runs at the Lyric Theatre on the Northern Bank Stage until August 14. Check out our What's On guide for more information.