Metta Theatre have brought their hip-hop street-savvy version of loveable children’s story Jungle Book to Bristol Old Vic – Emma Payne swings over there to find out more
If you don’t know all of the words to ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ and ‘Bare Necessities’ from Disney’s immortal Jungle Book animation, then frankly I’m not sure we can be friends. But look beneath the surface of Kipling’s original story and its subsequent adaptations, and you’ll find controversy, racism, and echoes of colonialism at every turn.
Thankfully, award-winning company Metta Theatre has taken all of our favourite characters and transported them into the 21st century, with a modern tale of inclusivity, self-expression and equality to match. Director and story adapter Poppy Burton-Morgan has created a relentlessly entertaining visual feast sure to impress any age, from the unusual, urban soundtrack to the outstanding choreography.
What’s more, Metta’s Mowgli is female, and a mighty fierce, fun-loving, funky female at that. Natalie Nicole James leaps about the stage with childlike playfulness, coupled with the stage presence and skill of an incredibly talented performer. She scrabbles around the floor, body-pops, break dances and backflips before taking flight in memorable, aerial acrobatic sequences which had little ones squealing and adults gawping in amazement.
The narrative is fairly similar to the original, but compacted into just 70 minutes and told through rap, spoken word and dance – perfect for children. After being separated from her mother at an early age, Mowgli is taken in by the wolf pack, a street-wise group of skaters. She grows up a misfit, protected by beat-loving bin man Baloo, graffiti artist Bagheera and hypnotising seductress Kaa – each cleverly represented by their own distinct choreography and sound effects. Dean Stewart is suitably terrifying as antagonist Shere Kahn, his threatening rap accompanied by sinister movements including twirling his double jointed shoulders in a menacing fashion (strong stomachs required!) and stalking across the stage.
After the fun of an urban jungle upbringing, Mowgli attempts to re-integrate into the ‘civilised’ adult world – one which consists of awkward business men and women, walking in comically angular fashion, shuffling onto the tube and staring at their phones, while Mowgli whirls in-between them, unsure of her place in the world. While the adults chuckle at the satire, the children are mesmerised by the lighting and silly oversized suits in this mockery of 9-5 working life.
Ultimately, as well as a spectacular visual feast, littered with unbelievable tricks, choreography and feats of exceptional strength (props to Nathalie Alison’s gravity-defying routine in particular), Metta Theatre’s Jungle Book is a modern coming-of-age tale. The message to adults as well as children is to be yourself, voice your opinions and speak up for those less fortunate than yourself – as espoused by Mowgli on her return to the jungle family, having befriended an outcast vulture on the way.
So yes, by all means enjoy the nostalgic charm of Disney’s efforts – live action and animated, we’re not fussy – but for a stunning piece of theatre with a big heart, contemporary flair and an uplifting lesson about self-acceptance, Metta Theatre is the way to go.
Jungle Book runs at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 29 July. To find out more and buy tickets, visit bristololdvic.org.uk
All images © Richard Davenport