JUNGLE BOOK Theatre Royal Windsor & touring

GRIME AND GRACE IN THE URBAN JUNGLE

 
You never know what you’ll get from Poppy Burton-Morgan’s Metta Theatre. I can’t claim to have spotted every venture of her ten years, but definitely remember a site-specific Pirandello in a tiny cafe and updated Scheherezade tales at the Soho by modern Arab writers from Tunisia to Syria during the Arab Spring (Sindbad was a migrant to Italy, forerunner of today’s diaspora). Oh, and there was a haunting Alice in Wonderland spin-off in a tunnel under the V & A. I missed their full-scale Cosi fan Tutte in Oxford, and a children’s show about worms and baby bats. But now, touring towards the London Wonderground in August, here’s a circus and hip-hop ballet with a moral motive, inspired by a (posthumously rather startled) Rudyard Kipling.

 

 

Here’s a female Mowgli, Baloo as a beatboxing bin-man urging us to imagine “bare necessities on a bare stage”, and an urban jungle of skateboarding parkour wolves, a supercool Kaa, a trapezing vulture and an immense, fabulously muscled Shere Khan villain, Dean Stewart: whose CV proclaims him expert in the disciplines of “krump, popping, breaking (b-boy) contemporary, jazz and hip-hop” not to mention dancing behind Sugababes.

 

 

So if it does nothing else, the show will help educate confused middle-aged people like me about krump, grime and whatever b-boy is. Already Mums, Grans and teachers seem to be flocking in with children (including some tiny ones who seem totally au fait with urban culture, cheered Mowgli loudly and dragged their tottering Grans to their feet for the curtain call dance-off). It probably helps if the youngest arrive knowing the story of The Jungle Book; but after Disney and now this year’s new film, the odds are that most of them will. And Burton-Morgan’s version of the plot is compelling, and detailed in the programme (there is only sparse verbal narration, in rap).

 

 
Little Mowgli, a puppet at first and then the tiny, nimbly acrobatic and expressive Natalie Nicole James, loses her mother and is taken up by the wolf-pack and mentored by a gloriously comic breakdancing Baloo in a hi-vis jacket (Stefan Puxon). She escapes the monkeys, wards off Shere Khan with fire in a fabulous Red Flower dance, and when Akela is banished for failing a skateboard jump, goes back to the city – more marvellous dancing as robotic figures in suits jerk around with briefcases . She finds her lost mother who, in the most entertaining number of all, gets her out of her neat red jumpsuit and into a series of skirts, in which Mowgli performs different styles of dance – waltz, Charleston, ballet – each one descending into frenzied street-dance moves, especially striking in a tutu. Kendra J.Horsburgh is the choreographer, with Nicole James herself and Nathalie Alison (Kaa) credited for the acrobatic sections.

 

 

 

I am no dance critic, but can vouch for the excitement, the contrast, and the way that every move serves the theatrical narrative: though I did have to check it out a bit in the interval to be sure of some of the subtleties. The cast, rich in edgy dance and circus experience, are remarkable. Especially young Natalie’s Mowgli, whose lithe red-clad figure will stay in my mind’s eye a fair while : leaping, rolling, somersaulting, trapezing, clambering up the skewed lamp-posts of the set, duetting on an aerial hoop with Natalie Alison as the most graceful of vultures.

 
But if you want the oddest thought which flickered through my head, watching this portrait of the modern urban dispossessed (dance gives you a lot of time to think in sentences), it was about Kids’ Company. I realized that Baloo – friendly, vigorous, overenthusiastic but benign mentor of the lost child – was basically Camila Batmanghelidgh…

Touring: details at http://www.mettatheatre.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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