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Rudyard Kipling meets the concrete jungle in the Lower School production of The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling meets the concrete jungle in the Lower School production of The Jungle Book

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24 May 2018

Straight from the mean streets of Bath to the Urban Jungle, this year’s Lower School Production of The Jungle Book blends rainforest and the Rio Carnival with lost Aztec temples, the Indian Holi Festival, parkour runners, circus acrobats, neon vines and rumbling ghettoes in a glorious technicolour fusion that is simply dazzling to behold. Forget ‘The Bear Necessities’ - this was Rudyard Kipling meets the concrete jungle set to an eclectic playlist that sees cows grooving to Coldplay, monkeys getting funky to Deee-Lite, hip-hopping wolves, a Bollywood-Beyonce serpent and beat-boxing jackals, all set to the underlying pulse of native drums. With wild and wonderful performances from an extraordinarily talented young cast, this production truly is a ‘concrete jungle that dreams are made of’!

The stage is a mesmerising fusion of rainforest and ghetto – corrugated iron, car tyres and scaffolding, festooned with creepers, vines and neon-bright garlands, as if an inner-city estate had been subsumed by wilderness: these are the lost temples of El-Dorado, sometimes glimmering through the shadows then glowing luminous under fluorescent lighting.

The sights, sounds and colours of the jungle are brought magically to life through the sorcery of the Physical Crew and the Puppeteers who transform into rivers, trees, wind, fire and a dazzling array of animals, using puppet wizardry reminiscent of The Lion King: birds like shimmering kites, a ten-foot python that slithers across the stage, a giant pink elephant which sways hypnotically through the audience.

Mowgli first appears as a baby puppet, adorably brought to life by Lee Moscovici and Matt Marshall. As he grows to a man-cub, he is depicted first by Katie Shepperdson, who brings a playful innocence and sense of mischief to the role, then by Xander Spencer-Jones who lends an intensity and moving vulnerability to this mixed-up parkour wolf-boy. When the two are reunited in the final scene it highlights the truth at the heart of a play which celebrates the rich inheritance of complex families and hybrid cultures: you can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy!

But first Mowgli finds himself caught in the gang warfare between Wolves and Big Cats. This is KES meets Tupac v Biggie Smalls. East Coast Hip Hop versus West Coast Massive comes to … um -  The West Country! The wolf posse who adopt the man-club are like an inner-city skate gang, channelling Dr Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent (and dressed in homage to Palace and Supreme!) they rap to a jungle beat and snarl intimidatingly at the audience but are fiercely protective of their wolf-brother.  Their leader, Akela, played with raw intensity by Josh Bernald-Ross, is a lean, mean Hip-hop Messiah (I’m thinking Snoop-Dog – or Snoop-Wolf, perhaps?) He is flanked by the grimly powerful Wolf-Daddy (Olly Cochrane) and fierce Mama Wolf in the shape of Elysia Bidgood as Raksha, channelling Cookie from Empire  in her huge faux fur gilet, animal-print playsuit and baseball cap and delivering some of the most moving moments in the play.


On the other side of the gang war, is Adj Moayedi as Shere Khan, the ‘King-Pin’ of this North Road favela – cooler than Kanye, deadlier than Drake, this tiger got Yeezy-style with his giant medallion, pink shades and terrifying blend of charisma and killer instinct. His fight scenes are brilliantly, terrifyingly choreographed with lethal precision (and a Fatal Attraction finale that will make you gasp!).

His posse of jackal cronies in leather jackets, knuckle-dusters, studs and piercings, brought menacingly to life by Ben Fallon, Sam Seepers, Joe Johnson and Elise Withey, act as if drive-by shootings and knife crime are their daily bread. They are headed up by Tabaqui played by Jack Garrad who makes crushed velvet and studded leather seem utterly terrifying.

But it’s not all dark and dangerous down in the woods: a pair of twin Baloos, played by Charlie Maguire and Zak Rosenfeld bring some wonderful, warm Northern Soul to the Rumble in the Jungle. More Acid House than hip-hop, and channelling a bit of Peter Kaye, in their fluorescent dungarees, with teddy bear tummies and warm bear-hugs, their glorious comic timing and buffoonery make them delightful side-kicks.

Then there’s Bagheera, played by Olivia Laughton, who brings girl-power to the ghetto – she is Wonder- Woman meets urban street fighter – kick-boxing, kick-ass and kitted out in leather, Princess Leia space-buns and a bullet belt (!), she delivers a performance with passion, power and heart – you’d totally want this panther in your corner.

And there’s plenty of monkey-business in this production too. The Bandar-Log – led by Ban, Luna and Taak (played by Ollie Featherstone, Elsie Bruton and Theo Wood) -  are the Haribo of monkeys:  perpetually sugar-bonkers, with Hawaiian shirts so loud they need shades, exploding paintball pellets and disco lights -  these funky monkeys delight us with their flipping, beat-boxing, break-dancing antics before ultimately betraying Mowgli (gasp – spoiler alert! Bad, bad monkeys!)

But, ‘hey, hey we’re the cheeky monkeys’ get their come-uppance in the form of the giant snake Kaa, played by Ebony Hammond, Izzy Hughes and Violet Fitzwater-Bowker. Kaa brings a Bollywood Trap fusion to the playlist, but she’s also channelling a bit of Britney (the iconic 2001 MTV Awards!) and, dare I say Nikki Minaj too?  A hallucinogenic clubland diva in shimmering metallics - sibilant, hypnotic, irresistible …. this snake-charmer will have your head in a spin!

Threading the story together are the narrators, Neve Riley, Tanya Cheikh, Lee Moscovici and Matt Marshall. Dressed like Aztec chieftains, glorious in headdresses and winged costumes, they take a choric role, watching the battle between man and beast unfold below. Henry Skinner as Chil the Kite, in giant sequins, golden leggings and six-foot wings, soars across the stage delivering the wisdom of the Mayan gods, seeing nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ clash with encroaching human civilisation in a battle as old as time.

From the urban jungle to the human zoo, the world of man is the setting for the second half of the play. The hunters, led by the charismatically obnoxious Buldeo (Tom Winfield) is the Gaston of the jungle, oozing the toxic masculinity and boo-worthy baddie-ness that has come to be associated with those ubiquitous stripey trousers of the KES Drama wardrobe! The hunters bought the Stomp factor to the playlist – like Inca warriors their drum beat was a call-to-arms, but it was shot through with the sweeter melodies of the village girls who were funny, wise, foolish and compassionate in turns.

Mowgli finds a new family, friends and foe in the village. There’s Chiki – Mowgli’s love interest played with beautiful passion and simplicity by India Purdie – and Messua, Mowgli’s ‘is-she, isn’t-she?’  mother (an intensely powerful Lily Chapman) whose fierce love for him is supremely moving and proves that maternity is not just defined by biology.  Then there’s Olly Cochran’s priest who, in just a few lines, raises uncomfortable questions about cultural imperialism with glorious irony and scene-stealing humour.

It’s a jungle out there, but behind the creepers and tangled vines, is a technical crew made up of KES pupils from Years 9 and 10 who man the follow-spot, do hair and make-up, act as stage managers and sound technicians and much more. Not forgetting the drums and on-stage percussion devised by Miss Perris and Toby Millar which pulsed powerfully throughout the play.

But the real magic at the heart of the rainforest is the genius of the directorial team, headed up by Mrs Stevens Craig and assisted by former KES Sixth Form pupils, Toby Farmer and Cerys Lewis, as well as Miss Tamblyn and Mrs Bird and of course the amazing Becca Long and James Sellick (the set and costumes are a fiesta all by themselves!)  

Arthur Miler once observed that ‘The Jungle is dark but full of diamonds’ and this production will dazzle you with a shining array of gem-like performances from the stars of the Lower School. By the end you’ll feel like you’ve been to the Rio Carnival or the Holi colour festival, with the whole audience on their feet, dancing, grooving and moving to the Jungle Beat. And don’t think you won’t be up there with them: I defy anyone to resist the call of this wild and wonderful show  – cos that is the law of the jungle!

A gallery of images from the production can be viewed here.

With thanks to Mrs Bruton, for the review.

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