Despite my excitement, I was close to cancelling my arranged slot to review Emporium’s production of The Jungle Book. I had come down with a cold and flu and as showtime drew nearer I was reluctant to leave my bed, let alone the house.
But enticed by the faded charm of Emporium’s exterior, as I had never before been inside, and by my childlike eagerness to see the classic story come to life, I wrapped up and ventured out.
Settling in to our fold-down front row seats we surveyed the set, which was crawling from floor to ceiling with vines and ivy, dotted with real plants and even featured a palm tree. Under soft yellow and blue lighting and with the ambient sound of chirping crickets filling the cosy auditorium, the audience was immersed in the jungle world and excited to see what it had to offer.
The live band began to play and we were introduced through song and dance to a pack of wolves; better known as leader Akela and his family. The number was bold and tightly performed, setting the bar high and anticipation higher. Then the tale really began when the family discovered a baby in the jungle. They named him Mowgli and decided to raise him as their own, much to the anger of Shere Khan, a dominant tiger who vowed to kill the child before it grew old.
But brave Mowgli seemed carefree as he grew up, explored his home and met a host of new friends. These included Bagheera the slinky panther and most importantly, the loveable bear Baloo, Unlike in the Disney adaptation, there were no ‘Bear Necessities’ to be heard as the show was made up entirely of original songs, with music and lyrics by Mike Carter. These ranged from the stormy solos of villainous Shere Khan to the silliness of the monkeys’ dance.
And it was the Chief Monkey and his primate henchmen who provided the most laughs to the rapt and responsive audience. At one point, they tied sleeping Baloo to a tree and encouraged audience members to join in their monkey business by throwing bananas, and when looking for Mowgli, who had escaped the clutches of the hungry Chief, clambered between seats searching for him and noisily enlisting the help of the audience. One of the play’s great strengths was that it encouraged participation without being pantomime, the audience was never put on the spot and the fun wasn’t forced.
Another element of fun and surprise came through the use of puppetry. Chil the kite and Kaa the python were beautifully crafted and brought to life by their masterful puppeteer; Amy Sutton of Brighton’s Bard and Troubadour. She used realistic calls and movements as well as humour to transform the puppet creatures into key characters.
The ending of the play was more cautionary tale than fairy tale, as the audience saw Mowgli make a journey back to the humans’ village where he was born. Here he discovered many new things, but most dangerously he found fire, and he become hungry for the power that came with it.
Mowgli planned to rule the jungle and all of its inhabitants with this terrifying tool, and used it to banish Shere Khan forever. But after a cuddle and a song with his good friend Baloo, he realised the importance of his jungle friends, who then assembled on stage for a final bow and a medley of songs.
Leaving with a smile on my face I was glad I had made the trip, and I was even starting to feel better. If this charming production can cure a cold, just think what it could do for your kids’ summer boredom.