Thursday, 28 April 2016

Chapter 140: Metta Theatre's Jungle Book

Nathalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo: Richard Davenport
Metta Theatre's urban Jungle Book is now on tour in a production that fuses circus and street dance to drive home the bare necessities at the heart of Kipling's story, adapted and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, and I went to see it last weekend in Windsor at The Theatre Royal with my daughter. 

Nathalie Alison as Kaa with Monkey Gang
Photo: Richard Davenport
The set, designed by William Reynolds, is superb. Minimalistic and striking, as we took our seats the streetscape on stage was silhouetted against an illuminating red backdrop. Lamp-posts leaned nonchalantly at angles, wires hanging. Street railings were dotted around. This was not a real street, but Street, underscored through the music and urban noises, from traffic to the hiss of graffiti spray, conjured up by Filipe Gomes. A street cleaner crossed the stage, Stefan Buxon's Baloo the Beat-Boxing narrator, who, with a mic at the top of his broom, declared  "this ain't real life/Just a story that we tell for a few hours".  This was Metta theatre after all, theatre aware of its own theatricality. As such there weren't any (pretences to being) real animals in the show either. These were performers, who walked across the stage normally at the beginning, simply "bodies in space" until called into character by Baloo. Once summoned they assumed a human identity inflected with animal traits, and the coloured backdrop changed as though reflecting their aura - fiery red signified Mowgli, cool green for Kaa, orange for Shere Khan and so forth. 

Dean Stewart as Shere Khan
Photo: Richard Davenport
In a flashback at the beginning, baby Mowgli was cleverly represented by a red snowsuit of a puppet, operated by several performers. She was seen delighting the skateboarding wolf pack, led by Akela (Matt Knight) and Raksha (Ellen Wolf), as she began to learn rudimentary handshakes that distinguished one tribe from another. Then seamlessly she morphed into the fireball of energy that was Natalie Nicole James, wonder-full, fun, energetic, acrobatic, jumping on Baloo from behind like a young cub. My daughter nudged me, beaming, "She's really cheeky, isn't she Mum?!", even more when Mowgli balanced on the railings like a tight-wire artist. Counter-balancing Baloo's air of a loveable bumbling bear, Kloé Dean's Bagheera had the edge of the uber-cool mysterious street ninja and graffiti artist, sleek and powerful. These two surrogate parents were overpowered by the outcasts on the fringes, the grime-chattering monkeys who stole away Mowgli in a supermarket trolley, and turned to Nathalie Alison's Kaa for help, leading to the first circus solo of the show. There is no other word than mesmerising to describe the spell Kaa cast from her Chinese pole of a lamp-post, which in a sleight of hand turned from static to spinning, as she held her audience, both on stage and off, in rapt attention. Each time she plunged headfirst in a drop there were gasps in the audience, and a huge round of applause at the end of the sequence. Of course the subtext was clear to adults, as was the subversive power she held over gangsta rapper Shere Khan when he tried to intimidate her. Dean Stewart's Shere Khan in turn was satisfyingly menacing, dangerously so. Krumping is a new one on me (thank you Metta theatre for the A-Z of urban artforms - click here), and yes, I know this was a kids show, but in his dancing there was something for the mummies too!

At the end of the first act there was a show-stopping aerial solo from Mowgli, on fire as she scared off Shere Khan with her weapon "the red flower". The piece could easily have been conceived as an aerial silks piece, but in a more innovative interpretation Mowgli was on a dance trapeze with red rippons hanging down that blurred as she spun round faster and faster at the end. 

Nathalie Alison as Vee the vulture and
Natalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo credit: Richard Davenport
In the second half ailing Akela was getting pushed out by a fickle wolf pack egged on by Shere Khan. Disillusioned by this lack of respect and honour Mowgli, after a poignant farewell, left the streets for the world of the suits and angular elbowing. Out of the frying pan into the fire, as my daughter observed: "these people are really mean, aren't they Mummy?" Welcomed in by her birth mother, Mesua, less so by her partner Buldeo, played by the performers of Bagheera and Baloo respectively, one of my favourite parts was the scene where Mesua tried to redress the past by dressing up her daughter. Each outfit she put on had a corresponding dance and music, from Charleston to ballet, but each time Mowgli's own rhythm and movement broke free of the (strait)jacket and she was wheeled off, rebellious, suspended in a toe hang on the clothes rail. After a disaster of a posh lunch, with smoothly synchronised choreography from the waiters, Mowgli abandoned this world too and found refuge with the homeless Vee, the vulture, wearing an old raincoat with pigeon feathers woven into the back. After beggars' change had been thrown to them in pity, they ascended the aerial hoop like two sides of the same coin of social ostracisation. The beautiful sequence showed their vulnerability and pain, but also the underlying strength and refuge found in compassion for each other. I found their reciprocal vulture handshake very moving as well, a respectful solidarity between two souls treading a lonely path.

The chase sequence that followed as Shere Khan picked up the scent of Mowgli was initially a bit scary for my daughter, who grabbed my hand while I whispered soothing reassurances, but soon the thrill of the chase took over and she leapt up and down with excitement as Mowgli slipped away each time, thanks to deft parkour manoeuvres and acrobatics. One of the lamp-posts she used had a trapeze bar without the ropes, another innovative twist in design. I loved the energy and momentum generated by Kendra J. Horsburgh's choreography, particularly the police hunt (see inside rehearsals - click here), with body searches in quick-time and torches flashing. When Shere Khan was eventually captured and "caged", while his brutality was not excused, there was a certain sense that he embodied the sins of society. "I have never known love/Full of hate for the state that failed me/Derailed me" he said, and there was a touching moment when he realised he was past the stage of possible redemption "I found my way too late/Ground down." With Mowgli victorious over Shere Khan, finding security and her own voice, she had the final word urging others to speak up and be counted. On which note, I asked my daughter how she enjoyed the show:

"I didn't enjoy that Mum... I absolutely loved it!"

Dean Steward as Shere Khan and Natalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo: Richard Davenport
Jungle Book comes to London Wonderground this summer 13-28 August. See (click here) for a list of all the tour dates. 

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