Having been plagued by Covid setbacks, it’s really nice to finally get the chance to watch Jessica Swale‘s stage adaptation of The Jungle Book at Oldham Coliseum. Back in 2020, the company were only six days into rehearsals when the pandemic hit and lockdowns closed theatres across the country.
Over two years later, The Jungle Book has been appropriately programmed to coincide with the school holidays; providing Greater Manchester with the perfect family treat this Easter.
Bulldozing nature in favour of a concrete, urban jungle, Katie Scott‘s excellent design drags Rudyard Kipling’s book kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. A far cry from Disney, Scott creates a skatepark jungle-gym setting by using ramps, scaffolding, ropes and a mesh structure. This allows the actors to climb all over the set, echoing the behaviours of their animal counterparts.
The costume design is equally clever. Different ears on varied headwear denotes the animals that the ensemble cast are playing at the time, and are coupled with tails. It’s simple, but hugely effective, allowing the ensemble cast of seven to quickly and successfully switch characters. I particularly love the fact that the cubs in Akela’s wolfpack wear their baseball caps backwards, just like adolescents do to look ‘cool’.
The standout costume of The Jungle Book though is the neon green and black costume worn by Tamara Verhoven Clyde‘s Kaa. As she slithers her way up the steel scaffolding, the stage lights dim, and the costume actually glows in the dark, brilliantly creating the hypnotic effect that makes the slippery snake so devious in Kipling’s story.
Wearing a bucket hat with ears, Neil Hurst may looks like he’s rocked up at Oldham after a weekend at Parklife, but in fact, he plays Baloo. He brings a great deal of humour to the show, breaking the fourth wall and engaging with the audience. His rapport with them makes The Jungle Book feel very much like a pantomime (in spring, rather than winter). Ironically, it’s something he actually jokes about. Hurst is a delight to watch and I’d love to see him play a panto dame.
Sam Yetunde‘s Bagheera joins Baloo in being a guardian for Mowgli. Authentically feline in her mannerisms, Yetunde displays impressive physicality in her performance. Almost continuously prowling the stage, she has a magnetic presence that is fitting for such an iconic character.
However, it is Gareth Morgan who steals the show as the fearsome predatory tiger, Shere Khan, albeit without tiger stripes on his costume. With help from Adam McCready‘s sound design, this production doesn’t shy away from the tiger’s violent nature. However, with Morgan deliberately overplaying his role, it stops The Jungle Book from getting too dark. The quintessential villain, Morgan’s performance really reminds me of Scar from the Lion King. He perfectly plays the character you love to hate, and his song about hating vegans went down a treat; “What the hell kind of food is a lentil?”.
Sadly, in her adaptation, Jessica Swale turns Mowgli into a pathetic, weak character. In Kipling’s story and in the Disney film, he drives the narrative forward, but here the story is driven by Baloo and Bagheera. Instead, Mowgli spends most of the show whinging about having to do lessons, or moaning that he’s not strong enough.
It honestly doesn’t do the actor, Jason Patel, any favours. Because Mowgli is always exasperated or upset as a character, Patel ended up sounding out of breath most of the evening, due to heavy breathing. It’s a real shame because he sings well in his vocally challenging song, ‘Who I Am’, but isn’t given much else to really work with.
With new songs that promote themes of inclusion and belonging, The Jungle Book is a lovely, hugely enjoyable production, which the whole family will love. The children in the audience particularly enjoyed the fart jokes and water pistols. The kid sat next to me was even howling along with the wolf-pack….
“How cute” says Shere Khan.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The Jungle Book plays at Oldham Coliseum until Sunday 24th April. For more information, or to book tickets, please visit the Coliseum’s website.
Thanks to The National Lottery, you even can get 2 for 1 tickets on Wednesdays & Thursdays. Follow the link for the promo code.