Review: Metta Theatre - Jungle Book - London Wonderground, Southbank Centre

Performance: 17 - 28 August 2016
Reviewed by Ruth Mattock - Tuesday 23 August 2016

Metta Theatre 'Jungle Book'. Photo: Richard Davenport

Performance reviewed: 17 August, matinee

You can barely see a thing in the dim London Wonderground Spiegeltent, coming in out of the boiling sun. Usually the place for raucous cabaret, it’s an unexpected venue for a family hip hop show. But Metta Theatre, here directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, like to mix up their methods, and this is a hip hop Jungle Book with a pinch of acrobatics, circus and lyrical flava.

The small group have worked out an ambitious mission to update Rudyard Kipling’s tale, and that doesn’t just mean taking it out of colonial India. It’s out of the jungle too, into the ‘urban jungle’ where the city ‘Suits’ represent the unknown village and the Wolf family that takes in young girl Mowgli is a pack of skateboarding b-boys, lead by Ellen Wolf and Matt Knight as Raksha and Akela.

Shere Khan is a gangster rapper after Mowgli’s blood, Bagheera, played by Kloé Dean, a graffiti artist and Kaa a snake, occupation unknown but with a penchant for pole-dance.

We see Mowgli educated in the ‘law of the streets’ and the language of each animal – clever snatches of character choreography from Kendra J Horsburgh. Each animal has its own movement style, well matched with personality. Dean Stewart’s Shere Khan krumps with real malevolence, Kaa’s skills on the Chinese pole, performed by Nathalie Alison, are appropriately hypnotic and Mowgli’s acrobatics, from Natalie Nicole James, are impish and playful.

In the spirit of crossing art forms, something at which Metta Theatre have proven themselves effective in the past, it’s worth noting the classic theatre shape of the whole show. We have a prologue, as Baloo the bin man’s (played by Stefan Puxon) ‘lyrical feats’ introduce our characters, snippets of rapped narration and an epilogue with some wittily delivered lessons.

Translation of the story to an urban setting is slick in spite of the small cast and hardly any props. Mowgli’s adoption is brilliantly told as a red babygrow puppeted by grown-up Mowgli toddles about the stage. Her kidnap too is a squawking feat of mischievous monkey business.

When Bagheera and Baloo decide it’s time for Mowgli to rejoin the society of ‘Suits’ where she belongs, the little girl rebels and runs away. Alone in the city, she accidentally comes across the real mother she lost. Taken in by her, Mowgli is modelled into the ‘Suit’ uniform she was trying to escape. Her mother looks on exasperated as she tries on various Suit-esque clothes, dancing ballet, foxtrot, and waltz (a neat comment on the status of urban and circus art alongside more classical forms). But each time only to break rebelliously into her own acro-hip hop style.

Poorly suited to the ‘Suit’ model, Mowgli disappoints her mother again and is once more abandoned. That the girl is dismissed by her own mother is dealt with rather without nuance, even if it feeds into Metta Theatre’s alternative plot model.

Mowgli is briefly taken in by homeless girl Vee the Vulture, another misfit in the Suit-jungle society. A friendship tested in gravity-defying balances on the ring is born, leaving the audience awe-struck and feeling a little more neighbourly.

Back in the jungle, Mowgli must defend her Wolf family against an attacking Shere Khan with her one Suit weapon – fire. Cue an impressive set piece on the hanging ring, red with fiery ribbon, as Mowgli flies above her tiger-rapper enemy.

In the final scenes, flashlight-wielding police finally catch up with Shere Khan, and the beast goes behind bars. Here Metta take a moment to note where he came from – the child of a lost mother, ‘failed by the state.’

Small scale but with a big heart, this is a show that asks some pertinent questions of its original. Abandoning the all-male cast, making its protaganist a young girl and ending on the moral not to go back where you belong, but that where you belong is wherever you want to be, even if you’re Mowgli among the animals.
In his final lines Baloo reminds the kids in the audience to “be a voice for the voiceless, make a choice for the choiceless”. And so Metta tick all their boxes – fun, imaginative, and a message worth paying attention to.

*Continues to 28 August, Tues – Fri at 3pm, Sat at 12.45pm and 3pm, Sun at 12.45pm. Extra show Fri 19 Aug at 12.45pm.
Tickets £10-22
London Wonderground at Southbank Centre

Photos: Richard Davenport

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