Theatre review: Jungle Book (3 stars)

Scene from Metta Theatre's production of The Jungle Book

Baloo and Mowgli enter a different kind of jungle in this hip hop adaptation

Rudyard Kipling wrote the book in 1894, and a new live action film hit cinemas in 2016 – but for most people, The Jungle Book will always be synonymous with the 1968 Walt Disney animation.

If you walk into this new production by Metta Theatre expecting anything remotely Disney-esque, however, you’ll be found wanting. There are no cuddly bears telling you about the necessities of life or monkeys who want to be like you – this blend of hip hop and circus keeps it much more real.

We start on a council estate, with broken lamp posts and metal barriers, where Baloo the friendly local bin man raps his way through a clever opening narration. He introduces the characters, the location and general vibe of the place, skilfully using his broom as a mic.

As the story unfolds, it’s clear much of Kipling’s story remains intact. Mowgli, now a young girl, is separated from her family and raised by wolves (here a group of skateboarders), meets with Bagheera the panther (now a graffiti artist) and Kaa the snake (aka superb aerial and pole artist Nathalie Alison) and ultimately overcomes her fear of Shere Khan (played by krumper extraordinaire Dean Stewart).

So there’s no shortage of new ideas in Poppy Burton-Morgan’s adaptation, and her ability to re-position a story originally inspired by Kipling’s upbringing in British colonial India, to modern-day urban life is laudable. Mowgli needs to find her place in the world, whether that be with the skateboarding wolves, the busy ‘suits’ in the city or somewhere in between – choices we can adapt to our own lives and empathise with.

The cast is energetic and tight, the aerial work polished and graceful, yet something is missing here to elevate the show from good to great. Dance routines come and go without building into anything memorable, potentially emotional situations arise but fail to move. For all its good intentions, Jungle Book does the job and no more – which given the talent on stage is a shame.

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