REVIEW: The Jungle Book, Theatre Royal, Newcastle, until March 31

The company of monkeys in The Jungle Book. Picture by Manuel Harlan
The company of monkeys in The Jungle Book. Picture by Manuel Harlan
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There's a whole lot of monkeying around on the stage at Newcastle's Theatre Royal this week.

A jungle full of animal characters is magically brought to life as the audience is transported into a parable universe originally created by Rudyard Kipling.

Just as children adored his collection of short stories more than a century ago, so a new generation of youngsters roared with laughter, particularly in the first half of this adaptation by Jessica Swale, when botty burps, belches and silliness ruled a playful jungle, It unashamedly exposed the big kid in all of us.

After the break, the action became a little darker, more sinister and emotionally charged - more adult.

Kipling's 1894 book has been given a contemporary feel, especially relevant to the younger members of the audience, and Joe Stilgoe's new score zipped along with some very catchy, humorous and dramatic tunes.

But if you're going along to hear songs from the classic 1967 Disney movie, then think again. You'll have to make do without King of the Swingers, Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You. In fact, it's quite refreshing to watch a completely new version of a Disney film after the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins and The Lion King were mirrored on stage.

Just like the set, which is constructed from a series of ladders and planks, green ones hanging down to represent the jungle's leafy ceiling and brown ones rising up from the ground, so the play is multi-layered. It tackles some serious issues, such as diversity, ethnicity, isolation, rejection and ultimately love. But they are presented within scenes of almost slapstick humour.

The oh-so familiar storyline is about a boy or man-cub called Mowgli, who is raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves. He encounters some friendly animals - Bagheera, a black panther, and Balloo, a big, cuddly bear - and some decidedly nasty creatures - Kaa, a python, and the evil tiger Shere Khan.

Mowgli was played brilliantly by a female, Keziah Joseph, with such energy, bravery and compassion that the final scenes brought a tear to many an eye. "There is water coming out of my face," says Mowgli, as the man-cub discovers sadness. Her vocals are powerful, taking Stilgoe's songs to another level.

Welshman Dyfrig Morris was a winner with the youngsters as he bounded around and cracked jokes as the affable Balloo. His song, I Guess That's Why They Call It the Balloos, was hilarious.

Deborah Oyelade was assured in providing Bagheera's voice of reason in the face of the onslaught of sheer evil from Lloyd Gorman's Shere Khan, the pantomime villain of the piece. There was not quite a chorus of boos ringing out for him, but there jolly well should have been! And Rachel Dawson was suitably shrill as Kaa, whose long, elaborate costume was controlled by three actors on stage. She was also excellent as Grey, one of the leading wolves.

The loudest chuckles were reserved for the mischievous monkeys - or the Funkies, as they preferred to be called - who brought attitude to the word naughty. They were certainly down with the kids, with their OMGs, banging and amaze-balls! I'm sure Mr Kipling would have approved.

Colourful, energetic, sassy and a right giggle - it was an enjoyable night at the theatre that will surely delight families in the run-up to the Easter break.

The Jungle Book is at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday, March 31, playing evenings at 7pm, matinees today (Wednesday) 2pm and Saturday 2.30pm. The show is suitable for ages 6+. Some tickets from £12 can be still purchased from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 08448 11 21 21 (calls cost 7ppm plus your phone company’s access charge) or book online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk