Review of The Jungle Book at Oldham Coliseum.
Although the stories may be well-known, the setting for Jessica Swale’s adaptation of The Jungle Book is refreshingly unexpected. Instead of dense undergrowth, a graffiti-swathed urban playground provides a world of ramps, ropes and climbing frames for Rudyard Kipling’s characters to jump, slide and swing their way through.
There’s an updated wardrobe for the animal kingdom too, with furry-eared headwear, and tails protruding from a variety of high street fashions. Clever costume design combines with thoughtful use of movement and gesture to create an engaging cast of creatures – familiar on one level, and yet clearly from somewhere more magical.
A place where an abandoned man-cub can be adopted by a bear and a panther – and end up hunting with a pack of wolves.
Swale’s new version comes with some upbeat and likeable songs from Joe Stilgoe. Lyrics such as “we might speak different languages but we breathe the same air” echo the adaptation’s emphasis on celebrating diversity – a theme that fits so well you wonder why it’s never been foregrounded before.
It’s also a show that finds room for lots of fun – including a fart joke, some banana-shaped water pistols, and a troupe of swaggering scally simians calling themselves The Funkeys.
To a large extent, the production’s strength lies in the richness of the characterisations – this slice of jungle life, and the animals that inhabit it, are genuinely relatable in so many ways.
As Mowgli’s adoptive parents Baloo and Bagheera, Neil Hurst and Sam Yetunde have the audience eating out the palm of their paws. Hurst’s bearish buffoonery and skilful audience interaction generate a lot of laughs; while Yetunde’s sleek and super smart panther gets plenty of girl-powered approval for her no-nonsense she-cat brand of feminism.
Jason Patel’s Mowgli feels a little underdeveloped, however his vocal performance needs no extra notes. In particular, he skilfully navigates a signature song that trickily combines anthemic messages with catchy wolf howls. When he returns to it near the conclusion of the show, it has developed into something akin to a rousing man-cub version of ‘I Am What I Am’.
In what must be a physically demanding production, it’s a credit to the hard-working seven strong cast that they make it all look so effortless – especially as several of the performers are required to regularly (and rapidly) switch roles.
As so often in children’s stories, a dose of deadly villainy (here it’s a double one) ramps up levels of excitement. There’s a gangster-ish twist to Gareth Morgan’s Shere Khan with his suave two-tone overcoat and devious ways, but sudden flashes of tiger print and a noisy way with a slashing claw are reminders that he’s all animal. Kaa the Python (Tamara Verhoven Clyde) is similarly ruthless – with an unnerving ability to hypnotise her prey, and a sinister sidewinding shudder.
That shakey snake-iness is just one example of Stuart Bowden’s wonderful movement direction. His inventive mix of energetic athleticism and expressive fluidity, along with Katie Scott’s eye-catching set and costume designs, give the show a pleasingly distinctive feel. Look out too for Jason Taylor’s lighting – especially as it washes colourfully over Scott’s artfully minimal backdrop of sun, moon, and sky.
It could be tempting to make lazy comparisons with pantomime, but ultimately this is simply well-crafted, highly entertaining, feel-good family theatre.
Apparently, it’s been over a decade since the Coliseum produced a family show outside of the festive season. I doubt there will be a ten year wait before the next one. If anything, with this production of The Jungle Book, director Sarah Punshon has created a strong case for a new annual fixture in Oldham’s cultural calendar.
Performance seen on 8 April 2022.
Images by Joel Chester Fildes.