Jessica Swale (after Kipling); music Joe Stilgoe
Oldham Coliseum Company
April 7-24, 2022; 2hr 05min
Everyone knows the Disney version of The Jungle Book, but few modern children, I suspect, have read the original books – yes. two of them – about the man-cub and his feral upbringing. No matter; Kipling wouldn't necessarily recognise this one anyway.
This production, of a version of the stories with modern social sensibilities, was originally planned for Easter 2020, then for last Easter, and finally gets in front of the public two years later, thanks to the pandemic. Not that the large number of youngsters in the audience - this is the Coliseum's first non-panto children's show in years - will care about that.
Potential family audiences should mark that this is decidedly a children's show, because under-10s will probably love it - on the evidence of the opening night crowd, anyway - but their parents and guardians could be left a little cold.
Award-winning writer Jessica Swale has reshaped the classic tales of Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Khan, Kaa and the monkeys - the last of those given Manc characters and self-renamed the "Funkees" - into something designed not simply to entertain, but to pass on life-lessons too: it's okay to be different, let's all live together as one big happy family, and so on. A bit heavy handed perhaps, but there is lots of jumping about, singing and laughter along the way to soften it.
Director Sarah Punshon also doesn't seem fully sure whether this Jungle Book is a kids' drama or a musical comedy, and at the moment it's all of these, with slightly earnest songs by Joe Stilgoe. The actors have representational costumes (Katie Scott) rather than recognisable animal characters; Black panther Bagheera wears a leather biker jacket; Baloo a dingy brown jacket and trousers and bear ears (ears are a general theme); Shere Khan a long coat, heavy paw-gloves and air of menace, and so on. They jump around on a succession of scaffolding trees and painted wooden platforms, rather than scenery made up like lush jungle. Kids won't mind, but their guardians might find it a bit low-rent.
The seven performers - Tamara Verhoven Clyde, Ebony Feare, Neil Hurst, Gareth Morgan, Jason Patel, Tarek Slater and Sam Yetunde - work hard throughout all this, some in more than one role. But while they all manfully play their spirit animals with vigour and good humour, only one engages fully with the audience and gets genuine warmth back. That's Neil Hurst, who play Baloo as a lovable oaf and is, as his easy manner with the audience might suggest, a long-time panto performer.
Tickets and info here