Review: The Jungle Book at Liverpool Playhouse

Photo: Manuel Harlan

By Nigel Smith

AUTHOR Jessica Swale has a keen eye for adapting literary classics in inventive, modern interpretations. Here she has taken Kipling’s collection of stories and woven a tapestry out of many of their key threads, to create a hugely engaging, colourful and timely play.

It opens with Keziah Joseph’s Mowgli being tucked up in bed by her parents, creating a simple but effective framing device. This enables the allegorical nature of all the characters in the story, human and animal alike, to shine through.

With its complex set made up of ladders and scaffolding, this is very much an urban jungle, and the whole piece takes on the feeling of a flight of dreamlike imagination.

An oft-levelled criticism of Kipling is that it can be both preachy and racially offensive, but Swale has brought all the best loved and most reviled players in the book very much into a modern context. Balloo is a lovable great lump of a bear merrily brought to life by Dyfrig Morris and Bagheera the panther has great maternal wisdom and protectiveness in Deborah Oyelade’s sinuous and dignified portrayal. Meanwhile Lloyd Gorman cuts quite a dash as the evil Shere Khan, his tiger becoming a very different sort of King in a black and gold striped jump suit straight out of Las Vegas.

The real big win of this adaptation is its sense of inclusivity. The idea that it’s ok to be different and that “everyone can bring something to the party” is celebrated wonderfully throughout. There is some lovely puppetry too, from the tiny Mowgli growing up amongst the wolves, to the half-human half-puppet python Kaa. The wolves themselves, and a band of mischievous monkeys, bring energy and humour to the mix.

The text is augmented by a splendidly rich and colourful musical score from Joe Stilgoe, with many of the actors taking their parts in the onstage band, which often becomes part of the action.

This is really excellent family theatre, with something to offer for every age group. The show is comically interactive without ever becoming pantomime, and it really has some important things to say along its way. Anyone looking for a half-term treat that’s steeped in theatrical quality need look no further.

The Jungle Book is at the Playhouse till Saturday and then continues touring a further 11 venues nationwide until May.