If your only knowledge of The Jungle Book is a Disney movie, or even a dusty copy of Kipling hidden on your bookshelves, then get to the Devonshire Park Theatre this week (May 17-21, 7pm and 2.30 matinees), where Metta Theatre’s production will take you by surprise.
In fact, it will take your breath away. This youthful company is exuberant, daring, astonishingly physical. In a dazzling, tumbling night of theatre, the seven performers take us to the very summit of what the human body can achieve.
Rudyard Kipling – a man of Sussex, of course – would have briefly raised an eyebrow, then chuckled and given a warm nod of approval. In his original book, the great man created that tantalising storyteller’s blend of reality and imagination, which is exactly Metta Theatre’s take on the tale of the child raised by animals.
Be warned that this is no naturalistic version, with green foliage and Lion King costumes. Yes, there are masks and representational costumes, but the characters are created by brilliant physicality: lithe and sinuous, strong and moody, mischievous and angular. Not a tree in sight, indeed, but a scruffy street scene and a spare stage of jagged lampposts. But every performer has superb acrobatic circus skills worthy of Cirque du Soleil, and they create beauty against a backdrop of ugliness.
It isn’t flawless. In the first half, stripped down to only minimal narration and dialogue, the story is quite hard to follow. You could do worse than arrive half an hour early, take a civilised drink in the bar and read the very thorough synopsis (supplied free), to be reminded of the key events of the story. But even with an indistinct plot, the breathtaking acrobatics are an entertainment in themselves.
What do I know about rap and street-dance? Well, I did keep up, and so will you. Fortunately, sitting next to me was 14-year-old Emily, a GCSE dance and drama student. “It’s just so exciting and frankly amazing. Phew! They are doing almost impossible things up there. It’s just an example to any young performer.”
And Act Two is clearer, sharper and altogether more dramatic. There is a valid message - mirroring the Kipling original - that true humanity, compassion and bravery are best seen stripped raw, and not clothed in the impersonal grey suits of those who pass Mowgli by on the street.
The second half also has the two funniest and most perfectly choreographed sequences - a priceless stylised restaurant routine, and a touching scene where well-meaning Messua - an excellent Kloe Dean - clothes Mowgli in ballroom and ballet outfits to “civilise” her. Born a free spirit, but suddenly in chains, Mowgli returns to her roots and the company of bears and monkeys. Superbly conceived and delivered.
As Mowgli, the show’s poster girl Natalie Nicole James has a wonderful playfulness, but with a touching edge of vulnerability as the wide-eyed child in a hostile world. Equally astonishing is the gymnastic brilliance of Nathalie Alison as Kaa, elasticising every movement with trapeze and pole routines that defy gravity.
Ellen Wolf’s Raksha is striking and dynamic, and the three men - Stefan Puxon, Matt Knight and Dean Stewart - bring strength and versatitiy. Dean’s fearsome, imperious Shere Khan had young Emily gripping the armrests.
By the end, both she and the more sedate Devonshire Park patrons were on their feet. Even the walk-down was a spinning, exuberant dance-down. What’s that phrase about mad as a box of monkeys? This is madder, and marvellously delivered. By Kevin Anderson