The Jungle Book

A bold new take on Kipling’s The Jungle Book takes the classic tale to the streets and casts Mowgli as a girl.

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Back in 1967, Rudyard Kipling purists may have been perturbed when Walt Disney released a family-friendly cartoon version of the author’s 1894 story collection The Jungle Book. But the film managed to bring Kipling’s tales to a whole new generation of fans. Down the decades since, it’s been joined by an assortment of fresh interpretations of the source, not least last year’s new Disney feature film blending CGI and live action.

Now a new stage version of The Jungle Book is coming to The Lowry, courtesy of the award-winning Metta Theatre company. Adapted and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, it’s yet another bold take on the material, dragging it right into the 21st century for young audiences. This time, Kipling’s stories are told through a very physical blend of street dance and circus work. Here, Baloo the bear is re-imagined as a beat-obsessed bin man, while Bagheera the panther becomes an enthusiastic grafitti artist.

Kloe Dean, playing Bagheera, says: “It still has the same storyline. It just takes a totally different – and I think more modern – approach. Instead of it being set in a jungle in another country somewhere, it is literally in the streets. It’s like it could be in anyone’s town.”

The familiar characters are still animals but, Dean explains, “we’re kind of like superhero characters, in the sense that we have those animal characteristics but we’re not necessarily doing them so literally.”

Rather than The Bare Necessities and the rest, this production boasts its own bespoke beat-driven musical score, too.

“It’s a total mix. There’s hip-hop and dance and then it has a very funky kind of vibe for Baloo’s parts of the show. For Bagheera it’s quite electronic and then for Shere Khan it’s got quite a dark vibe. As much as everyone loves the Disney version, this has got a really refreshing new approach to it, but it still reminds you of what you loved about the classic as well.”

The show is suggested as suitable for ages eight plus and manages to navigate its way carefully around the tale’s edgier moments. “It kind of takes a cartoon approach, so I think that takes off the edge off it being too serious or too scary. Probably the scariest parts are with Shere Khan, but actually that’s quite empowering, because it brings in the issue of bullying. Hopefully, it could reach out to some young people who may have experienced similar situations and suggest how they can overcome them.”

Another bold touch is the fact that Mowgli here is a young girl, played by Natalie Nicole James. Dean says: “I feel like, in a society where we feel like we have to do something a certain way, this kind of breaks that boundary and shows you that it doesn’t have to be a boy that plays the lead character. Natalie who plays Mowgli is probably one of my favourite performers that I’ve seen in a while. She’s absolutely amazing to watch.”

As with the casting of a female Doctor Who, it seems to be that children themselves have no problem with the gender switch at all. “Mainly it’s the parents or the older generations that have mentioned it. The kids, they haven’t batted an eyelid. Younger children are just more accepting of change, I guess.”

The Jungle Book, 29 August-2 September, The Lowry, Salford

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