The only person who arrives to the Jungle Book with no baggage is Mowgli.
Settling down in the Royal Theatre for the Made in Northampton version I found myself admiring the bold set design (ladders and ropes hanging down invitingly) but imagining scenes from the Disney movie playing out across it.
Once you have got past the Disney baggage there is the dubious imperial heritage of the stories to be negotiated.
Rudyard Kipling was a liberal voice in the era of the British Empire but in the post imperial age is he too much of a fig leaf for an exploitative and murderous exercise? As wonderful as his writings were, they were basically an invented mythology for a colonised country – an invader’s cultural graffitti. Really good graffitti but still graffitti.
It all goes to show that the appetite for a challenge at Royal & Derngate is clearly undiminished and to be fair, if you come out of this Jungle Book thinking of fig leaves and Disney then you weren’t paying attention.
Jessica Swale who created the show in collaboration with Joe Stilgoe (son of satirical songsmith Richard) has used the medium of pantomime to steal this story out of the baggage compartment and turn it into something fresh and fun.
The Royal’s Christmas show, by contrast with the shiny showbiz offering in Derngate (Aladdin this year), is not usually so panto. There might be a cheeky nod to audience interaction but you are normally looking at a classic story getting a good telling.
But this year Jungle Book has monkeys in the audience, wolves addressing us like we are the pack and a tiger who sneeringly claws his way through the fourth wall to express his contempt for our feeble minded support of the story’s hero.
The panto tradition of the androgynous lead gives us the captivating Keziah Joseph as Mowgli. Her switch from operating the puppet which represents Mowgli as a baby to emerging as the boy on the verge of manhood is a wow moment of great stagecraft.
In fact this is a show that really owns the space it occupies. The stage rotates. The cast climbs through a jungle of ladders and poles. Baloo arrives from the audience to join the action.
Dyfrig Morris’s unashamedly Welsh bear is still the lovable clownish rogue who was such a hit for Disney and his sparring partner Bagheera is still the exasperated wiser head – but this Bagheera is the mesmerising Deborah Oyelade who turns Kipling’s panther into a nocturnal diva.
Lloyd Gorman is Shere Khan in stripes and leather. He marauds through the action with the menace of a punk Captain Hook but he also got the biggest laugh of the night fulfilling the love to hate obligations of the panto villain.
What I’m really surprised to find myself saying is how much I enjoyed the songs.
They skip along deftly tackling big themes like overcoming differences and finding your identity with an almost Kiplingesque lyrical dexterity.
Apparently the original intention was only to have four songs but the writing process was so productive they ended up with many more and kept them in. Good call.
This was big show entertainment delivered by a small cast of multi-skilled multi-taskers. If there had been some way of tweaking the harshness of the sound levels when Shere Khan entered there would have been no gripes at all from our section of row E.
The all round strength of the cast, many of whom were able to pick up instruments and play in addition to their singing, acting and dancing has to be admired. As Kipling wrote: the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
This scores as a good family night out, some of it might be a bit scary for under nines but nothing that can’t be cured by a quick delve in the sweetie bag.
It also scores as good food for thought. Jungle Book’s roots were planted in a world that needed to change and this version goes some way to showing how much it has. Go back into the jungle – it’s been there a long time but there is still plenty to discover.
For tickets go to www.royalandderngate.co.uk