If you are looking for Disney characters you should look elsewhere as this is a gritty, urban explosive retelling of Kipling’s Jungle Book by Metta Theatre. Mowgli, played with great skill by Alfa Marks, is a girl in this version; a girl trying to find her place and her voice and to become a woman among the competing tribes of the city. The “animals” are hip-hop dancers each with their own rhythm and movement. It helps to actually know the story as you may at times get lost as to what’s going on, but then that’s OK too, because Poppy Burton-Morgan’s adaptation has moved so far from Kipling that it has become a story in its own right.
The show opens with Baloo, a beat-loving bin man bear, who introduces us to the principal characters. The crew bursts onto stage at the Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank causing the surrounding audience to sit back in their seats for fear a dancer might breakdance or somersault off the edge of the high stage. We are immediately transported to the urban jungle of the street, the characters look as though they might have come straight from the nearby South Bank skate park. These are seven highly skilled dancers and circus performers who are going to take us on an exhilarating 70-minute journey, which Baloo informs “occasionally it’s lyrical, sometimes satirical”.
The story begins with the skateboarding Wolf crew who find a baby girl, a charming baby snowsuit puppet that is well manipulated by the ensemble. Body-popping Shere Khan, the Tiger, wants to have her too but the wolves protect her. Mowgli grows and the puppet is replaced by Marks who is then taught the language of the animals by Baloo and Bagheera, the graffiti artist panther. Only language in this context is choreography and she learns to dance with the unique physical motifs of each animal.
Mowgli is then stolen by the monkeys, but a pole-dancing Kaa the snake, played with great skill by Nathalie Alison, manages to hypnotise them into releasing her. Baloo then gives Mowgli a suit saying “Mowgli sister its time for you to go to the suits in the city – I know it don’t sound pretty”. Once in the city she spies a barbecue and takes a red ribbon to symbolise fire and returns to the “jungle” to finally beat Shere Kahn. What we see is a fantastically controlled aerial routine with Marks winding herself around a hanging “vine”.
One of the great things about this show is the constant change of pace and the switch between art-forms. One minute we are watching aerial hoop, the next we might be ooing and ahing at body-popping or head spinning hip hop dance. I loved the suit dance as Mowgli finally returns to the city she was stolen from, where the dancers don broad-shouldered jackets and briefcases – it is clear what Burton-Morgan, who also directs the show, thinks of them.
One of the most recognisably theatrical scenes is when Mowgli’s mother Messua, played by Kloe Dean, tries to make Mowgli conform. She gives Mowgli conventional clothes to try on, which each represent a more acceptable dance form – a long skirt of a ballroom dancer, a flapper dress for Charleston, a tutu for ballet, but each time her hip-hop dance breaks through. For the young people in the audience this is the easiest scene through which to understand the heart of the play. That you don’t have to conform and that it is OK to find your own voice. As Mowgli says at the end of the play “If you ain’t got a voice, you ain’t got a choice”.
Fans of street dance and circus will love this show and so too will anyone who is interested in how old stories can be transformed into a contemporary context.
Adaptor/Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Designer/Lighting Designer: William Reynolds
Composer/Sound Designer: Filipe Gomes
Music Director: Jak Poore
Choreography: Kendra J Horsburgh, Alfa Marks, Nathalie Alison
This show is running from the 1st August to the 24th August 2017. Tickets can be purchased at www.underbellyfestival.com/whats-on/the-jungle-book