It’s a big year for Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, with Disney just releasing their live-action remake of The Jungle Book and it’s doing record trade in cinemas. It’s a story that captures the public’s imagination and great that a live show, by London-based Metta Theatre, is now off and touring after 3 years’ thought and development. And it’s not your standard bit of stage theatre either, but a “hip-hop, dance theatre, narrative-circus” version, just called Jungle Book. I caught the second performance of the tour – a tour which currently takes in 9 theatres across the UK and runs through to August with a final 2 week run at London’s Southbank Centre.
From the off, I’m in two minds about Jungle Book. The really laudable aspects are that the show looks to get young people and families in by making the story relevant to today and the urban jungle that many youngsters inhabit, and to present it shorn of casual violence and offer an occasional spoken narrative (by the ‘beatboxing binman bear’) that encourages anybody to speak out if things are wrong. The show also includes a Community Chorus, 6 in Windsor, drawn from local street dance classes and other groups, some from vulnerable backgrounds. They skateboard around the stage and generally augment what the 7 professional performers do. I applaud such a positive and relevant approach.
The Jungle Book is a complex story and this plot, updated as it is, still has an awful lot going on. The programme has some long notes about the two acts and 10 scenes but I doubt anybody would have the time to read it all (or even remember all the twists and turns) before the curtain rises. So Jungle Book really needs to tell the drama straight off the stage and I don’t think it really does that so well in a mash-up of narration, circus, dance and acting from professionals and amateurs. I don’t particularly know much about the Jungle Book plot and I came out not really feeling I knew any more. I’d seen lots of action and movement on stage but I won’t say I was overly wowed by the hip-hop I saw and the circus aspects (associated with Chinese pole and trapeze work – executed well) seemed rather free-standing from the plot. I don’t think that’s the intention and there is a long piece in the programme, by Poppy Burton-Morgan, Metta Theatre’s artistic director, about using circus to tell stories which includes a good commentary on what’s happening in the UK with many companies mentioned. Burton-Morgan’s introduction to the show at the front of the programme also contains much interesting info about their approach.
All the creatives (on stage and behind the scenes) are professionals, previously hooked into a variety of hip-hop and/or circus shows and it may be that in trying to tell a story, which doesn’t quite take off, the wonder of their physical skills is rather inhibited. Perhaps that’s best illustrated by the show’s last 5 minutes when the story is done and everybody is taking a bow and doing party pieces of terrific showy movement, and then the Community Chorus come out into the aisles and the audience is encouraged to get up and clap and dance. Everybody does and there are really happy smiles everywhere – it’s just so infectious. It’s the power of a live show, but it’s also the happiness of the moment and it seems that Metta Theatre are on a tricky journey trying to fuse modern physical theatre/dance/circus to narrative including light social comment and education. I give them 4 stars for intent and effort, but at the moment it’s not really delivering a 4 or even 3 star show. But I track them with interest and support the thoughtfulness of their approach.