Anyone familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book will know that his collection of stories doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the Disney animation that cemented the characters of Mowgli, Baloo and Shere Khan in successive generations of young minds. HighRise Theatre twist the story further with The Concrete Jungle Book Comes to PleasanceThe Concrete Jungle Book which transposes the story of the ‘man-cub’ to the streets of inner-city London.
Writer and director, Dominic Garfield, developed the show with young people from Centrepoint, the youth homelessness charity, originally taking the show to the Edinburgh Fringe. Now, it has been handed over to the NewGens, HighRise’s youth associate company.
The Concrete Jungle Book retains Kipling’s core themes of abandonment and fostering and sets them to a hip-hop musical score. The rap songs come hard and fast, and are performed with such abundant enthusiasm it’s impossible not to be swept up in the excitement, even if some of the lyrics are lost in the sheer volume of it all.
It is a testament to the NewGens that press night went ahead at all, with the company’s lead suffering an injury just hours before the performance was due to start. The company rallied, and succeeded in performing the full version of the show, with Lauryn Louise stepping into the role of Mo with just two hours to rehearse, and carried it off beautifully.
The rest of the cast reshuffled too, Lesley Rietta Cobbina picking up the role of Miss Matthews alongside that of Baloo, and the assistant director, Fahd Shaft stepped into the ensemble. If no-one had told the audience, we might never have noticed, with not a line missed and the complex choreography and fight scenes coming together as planned.
The Concrete Jungle Book exposes some harsh realities of inner-city life, the score and physical theatre elements, along with Alex Fernandes lighting design, give an excoriating perspective of homelessness and delves head first in to the difficulties of young people who find themselves on the street with nowhere to turn.
What made Kipling’s work so appealing was the use of human archetypes in animal form, The Concrete Jungle Book gives its human characters animal attributes. This is most noticeable in Alice McNicholas’ costume design; tracksuits have a subtle animal print effect, and hoodies are slightly altered to have cat like ears. But it’s very much in the performance too, the cast taking on animalistic movements and poses, or howling and growling where circumstances call for such a response.
There are elements of The Concrete Jungle Book that could be improved, particularly around balancing the loud, and sometimes overwhelming, hip-hop score with the quieter and more nuanced dialogue scenes, but given the problems the company faced immediately before opening, they did an excellent job of pulling it off at all.
The enthusiasm of the cast is what engages the audience with The Concrete Jungle Book, but even its youngest patrons won’t fail to pick up on the underlying themes that make this such an important piece of theatre, one which reinvents Kipling’s original in a way that Disney could never have hoped to achieve.
The Concrete Jungle Book is at The Pleasance until 11th June 2022.