first night

The Jungle Book

Dom Riley provides the bare necessities...

Another Soup Productions

Physical theatre, live music, puppetry: a theatrical holy trinity with the potential to inspire terror and despair into the hearts of audience members in the wrong hands. However, when the three are deftly used and well-combined, the result is frequently truly memorable piece of theatre. Fortunately, from the moment that we were invited into the incense-fumed interior of Empty Shop by Kaa and Bagheera, intimately sat on the floor in a traverse arrangement and told to keep our limbs in or they’d be ‘bitten off’, it became apparent that Another Soup’s retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale was far closer to the latter than the former. For all its minor niggles, ‘The Jungle Book’ is an accomplished attempt to bring Kipling’s jungle to life.
The production’s design elements were instantly arresting. The performance space itself was lavishly decorated with draped green fabric, oriental rugs, and wooden pegs on which hung the animal masks-cum-puppets that the ensemble brought to life as the creatures of the jungle. Indeed Ellen Marshall and Bella Alexandroff’s puppets were arguably the stars of the show; stylised, but beautifully detailed, they were an absolute gift for the performers to work with. All these features were perfectly complemented by Musical Director Jo Turner’s atmospheric compositions, ably performed by Rachel Morgan, James Dow and herself on the night.
On the whole, the ensemble was just as impressive. From an early stage in the production, I was struck by how well the director, Dave Spencer, had managed to form a company of genuine all-round performers. Not only was the acting of a high standard but the physicality and movement was largely excellent, and the singing and harmonising between cast members impeccable. By Spencer’s own admission, Another Soup relies on the ability of ensemble to work together and all contribute to the production process, and the group chemistry, especially in the wolf-pack scenes, shone through. At its best, ‘The Jungle Book’ had a fluidity and dynamism as the ensemble moved seamlessly from one scene to another, perfectly in tune to one another, bringing out the ebb and flow of Ruby Lawrence’s imaginative choreography. The sequence where the ensemble rolled around the performance space play-fighting as wolves was a personal favourite- beneath the impressively stylised physicality and inhuman vocalisation was a tenderness rarely seen in this dark reimagining of Kipling.
However, some performers realise their characters better than others. Ella Pearson is a believably childish Mowgli, though she appears most in her element in the lighter-hearted scenes; Steffi Walker effortlessly pulls off the matriarchal role of Mother Wolf; and Spencer and Rachel Taylor make a fantastic double act as Kaa and Ko respectively. This version of ‘The Jungle Book’ thrives on status exchanges, clashes, and attempted power struggles within the jungle’s strict code of conduct, not least those between Akela (Mike Clarke), Shere Khan (Tom McNulty). It is therefore a pity that Clarke is unable to sustain the authority that belies Akela’s position in the jungle. Though largely convincing in the role, he never quite finds the gravitas when he most needs it, especially in his scene alone with Mowgli and consequently the production’s sinister final twist is not quite as involving as it should be. However, this could equally be attributed to the incongruous use of a plastic toy knife in spite of all the carefully designed props and costumes- the production’s one aberration in design.
Another area met with variable success was the use of the puppets themselves. For the puppet to be convincing, it is crucial that the performer attains a unity with the puppet. They must move together and their facial expressions and physicality must mirror one another; when there is a disparity, the illusion breaks. Two members of the ensemble stood out in their ability to create this oneness: Idgie Beau’s Bagheera was a joy to watch, while Spencer’s brief turn as Hathi the elephant was so utterly convincing that Spencer and his puppet appeared inseparable, but other cast members were not as successful. McNulty in particular never quite seemed in tune with his Shere Khan puppet- while his delivery was undoubtedly engaging, the puppet felt superfluous at times as the two of them never quite seemed to be in sync.
However, these criticisms should not take too much away from the company’s overall achievements. Throughout ‘The Jungle Book’, I got the feeling that above all else, I was watching a production lovingly crafted by a group of people who cared very deeply about every single aspect of the theatrical experience. Another Soup’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is an intimate, highly watchable and unique little piece that is well worth a look, and Dave Spencer and his company deserve every credit pulling off such a theatrically ambitious production with such all-round aplomb.
Dom Riley

16 June 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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