Review: The Jungle Book at the Playhouse

Date: 15/02/2018

“Which is your favourite Jungle Book song?” I asked my niece? She thought about this for a while and finally replied: “Both of them”. While that might highlight how much two of the original film’s familiar score has penetrated the public consciousness, it also demonstrates the sort of escape velocity another musical take on Rudyard Kipling’s book might require if it’s to shrug off the Disney classic and forge its own identity.

The bolshy script and engaging performances certainly don’t do any harm. Shere Khan strides around the stage looking like an Elvis impersonator crossed with a Mighty Boosh baddie, sporting the sort of accent that suggests a career in used car sales near Romford. He enlivens every scene he’s in and is provides the most fun, even if it’s possible to detect a divide-and-rule Brexit metaphor in the way he attempts to bring the wolfpack under his control.

By comparison the notional good guys, primarily the wolves, are about as fun as a bunch of humourless social-justice music teachers, using crutches to walk on four legs and bedecked in what appear to be Tina Turner wigs and John Lennon specs. While they form the bedrock of Mowgli’s animal family they come across as the sort of people who wouldn’t allow him to watch ITV.

As this notional ‘parents’ Bagheera (feminist sex Auntie) and Baloo (Yogi Bear reimagined by Dylan Thomas) make for an amusingly opposites-attract combination, though they’re rarely without some earnest observation. A bunch of happy-slapping monkey (funkeys) are full of mischief but it has the ring of how adults imagine the yoofs speak. It’s something of a relief when one of them is eaten by an eye-rolling Kaa (Sue Pollard).

At the heart of it is Keziah Joseph as Mowgli, not a 10-year-old Indian boy, but a 26-year-old woman. It’s a touchstone for the gender and race fluidity on show here, undercutting some of the problems with Kipling’s text by making The Jungle Book an explicit parable about race, identity and acceptance.

If this sounds a little worthy, well, it is in places. The songs are good fun though, particularly a rumination on food by a hungry Baloo, and it’s all well executed by a willing cast who make full use of an imaginative set, with plans and ladders doubling for vines and trees.

Whether kids might go expecting the Full Disney is another matter – and what they make of something rather more ‘school trip’ is debatable, though the smaller audience members seemed to enjoy themselves. “Jungle Book Pantomime,” muttered one close by. Whether approvingly or otherwise wasn’t obvious but it seemed a fair comment.

The Jungle Book
Until Saturday 17 February
Liverpool Playhouse