Photograph: Brian Roberts
December 1 – January 6
Reviewed for North West End;
shorter version appears on their website: www.northwestend.co.uk
Have the Unity gone and done it again again – or have they over-done it this time: bitten off
more than they can chew with such an ambitious show? Rest easy. By and large, they have indeed come up with the goods yet again, with a production whose message, encompassing environment and displacement is subtly and effectively made rather than hammered home;
So welcome to the jungle, a stage festooned with creepers, although the rocky back wall sort of resembles a fireplace, and it is decorated rather precisely with three rocks in small, medium and large. And that Panto stalwart, audience participatuion kicks in pretty early, in fact, even before the play, the cast is virtually interrogating the audience. Fortunately, the unfortunate child ordered on stage to perform by the capricious Monkey King, enters into the spirit of the thing. As do we all.
The all singing and all dancing cast are all full of energy and enthusiasm. Asif Majid makes Mowgli as intrepid a hero as you could wish for, strong headed, yet compassionate. Raised by wolves, as Eddie Izzard has it, literally here, he needs to leave the jungle to escape the dreaded Shere Khan, and go back to the world of Man, with its dreaded ‘red flower’. He is taken under the wing, as it were, of Balou: Joe Shipman, garnering a bellyful of laughs, is both bumbling and brave. Bagheera (Fionnuala Dorrity) also helps to keep on eye on Mowgli – as do the three vultures, for different, opportunistic reasons. However, it has to be said, anthropomorphism doesn’t depend on quavery tones, which tend to jar with the bolshy attitude and athletic movement of a panther, or of a monkey.
After escaping such vicissitudes as the Monkey Palace and being the victuals for Kaa the snake, once Mowgli reaches the village, he is taken in by a kind-hearted woman. Feeling impelled to return to his friends, it’s the sojourn with his own kind which enables him to defeat Shere Khan.
The latter alas does not look as fiercesome as he sounds and acts, Samuel Perez Duran being hampered by an enormous cartoon like head, almost like advertising breakfast cereal. Another false note is the use of puppets. It works wel with sinister Kaa and the cute rat (mouse?) in the village but with those used to depict the three main characters pursued by Shere Khan, in fear of their lives, it simply defuse the tension.
But in the end, it really is a Jungle out there, in this loving, loely adaptation. Delightfully good humoured and well intentioned, you could well deem it King of the Swingers, soaring high above the usual pantomime.Yet again, the Unity deserves the ‘roar of the crowd’.