REVIEW: Derngate's Jungle Book is beguiling, thrilling and witty

Members of the Jungle Book cast. Picture: Manuel Harlan
Members of the Jungle Book cast. Picture: Manuel Harlan
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Dr Lily Canter reviews The Jungle Book at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

It had the makings of a full blown disaster. My husband loathes musical theatre, my two-year-old refuses to sit still and my five-year-old does not stop talking - ever.

Kezia Joseph as Mowgli and Dyfrig Morris as Baloo. Picture by Manuel Harlan

Kezia Joseph as Mowgli and Dyfrig Morris as Baloo. Picture by Manuel Harlan

And yet Jessica Swale's adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's short stories had us all enraptured from the get go.

Playing at Royal & Derngate until the end of the year as a captivating alternative to their pantomime, The Jungle Book is beguiling, thrilling and witty in equal measure.

Drawing from the original late 19th-century Kipling books The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, Swales has created a familiar story rooted in contemporary politics.

The multicultural cast are a refreshing sight and lend weight to the central themes of diversity, acceptance and finding your place in the world.

Kezia Joseph as Mowgli and company. Picture by Manuel Harlan

Kezia Joseph as Mowgli and company. Picture by Manuel Harlan

Raised by wolves and taken under the unlikely guardianship of a bear and a panther, a young boy must fight for survival in a mystical world where he feels he does not belong.

The innovative construction of the set with ladders and ropes suspended from on high and a central rotating stage allow the troupe of 11 actors and musicians to create a sense of speed and height during the shows' most dramatic moments.

Some of these darker, and louder, elements of the story are a little daunting for toddlers, mine included, but they are carefully juxtaposed with an array of 12 musical numbers which are now deeply ingrained in my eldest son's vocal repertoire.

Those expecting a Disney-fied experience will be in for a shock, as this murkier, layered, version includes some violent deaths and a deliciously wicked leather-clad punk Shere Khan.

Deborah Oyaelade as Bagheera and Dyrig Morris as Baloo and company. Picture by Manuel Harlan

Deborah Oyaelade as Bagheera and Dyrig Morris as Baloo and company. Picture by Manuel Harlan

Indeed Disney's film has been accused of latent racism and this is turned on its head in this stage play via the script and casting which demonstrate the importance of education, communication and tolerance.

Central character man-club Mowgli is played by astonishingly athletic female lead Keziah Joseph, whilst Baloo the bumbling sloth bear proudly embraces his Welsh heritage whilst offering the required light relief.

Meanwhile both Bagheera the black panther and Kaa the hypnotic python are switched to empowered female roles, making The Jungle Book a surprisingly feminist adaptation.

All of this will of course go over the heads of younger audience members who will simply delight in the gripping story, catchy tunes and farting monkeys.

The story may be over 120 years old but this adaptation ensures it is relevant and powerful, with something for audience members of all ages to enjoy.

* The Jungle Book runs at Royal & Derngate from now until Sunday December 31. Book tickets at www.royalandderngate.co.uk or 01604 624811.