The Jungle Book
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 5
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until December 29
The Selfish Giant
The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Until December 24
The Snow Queen
Until December 24
Reviewed by Mark Brown
How do you dramatise the tales in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book without getting sucked into the powerful orbit of Disney’s much-loved 1967 animation? It’s a question which troubled acclaimed Scottish dramatist Stuart Paterson before he grasped the nettle (or, perhaps, the Indian jungle vine) and adapted the stories for the Birmingham Stage Company.
The Birmingham production scored numerous successes between 2005 and 2011, and, as director Nikolai Foster’s revival for the Citizens Theatre attests, that is down in no small measure to the combination of boldness and subtlety in Paterson’s script. Confident enough to set the movie aside entirely, and rely, instead on Kipling’s words, the play deals much more profoundly with the developing identity crisis of the “mancub” Mowgli, while finding its own way of being both funny and musical.
The boy’s search for a sense of belonging – being, as he is, “a man in the jungle, and a wolf in the city” – will be recognisable to many children. Jake Davies makes for an excellent, thoroughly engaging Mowgli, his bravery and bravado leavened by a sense of vulnerability and singularity.
The young actor is surrounded by an excellent cast, ranging from Obioma Ugoala’s delightfully heavy-handed Baloo the bear to Lanre Malaolu’s truly malignant, limping tiger Shere Khan. Indeed, this sense of balance, between danger and fun, is replicated throughout the piece, not least in the colourfully abstract-yet-utilitarian set design, which gives itself over smartly to the dynamic, beautifully choreographed movement (such as Elexi Walker’s serpentine dances as the snake, Kaa) and acrobatics (as in the monkeys’ disquieting hyperactivity).
Add to this fine music and song, performed live by members of the cast, and cleverly understated costume and prop designs (including a surprisingly effective evocation of flame by way of a whirling ball of fabric), and Paterson’s decision to tackle Kipling’s tales has been given yet another winning vindication.
While the adventures of Mowgli are wowing school kids in the Citz’s main house, up in the theatre’s circle studio, director Guy Hollands is offering, for children aged three to six, the altogether more modest exploits of a seasonally named little girl, Holly, and Dad. Bauble Trouble is, as its title suggests, a charming little play about one miniature family’s efforts to make all the necessary preparations for Christmas.
Dad (Keith MacPherson, putting his physical theatre training at Ecole Jacques Lecoq to excellent use) has a list of five things that he and Holly (recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Jessica Hardwick on fine form) must do before Santa shows up; beginning with “put up Christmas tree” and ending with “sleep”. It all seems straightforward enough until Holly manages to tie Dad to the tree with a string of festive lights, and the unfeasibly long piece of tinsel turns out to be attached to a line of pants, sausages and fish.
In the midst of all this Chaplinesque buffoonery, Hollands is astute enough to realise that, to a pre-school child, the very height of comedy is an adult falling over (excelled only, perhaps, by two adults falling over). Consequently, the show’s neatly developed Lecoqian physical comedy is supplemented amply by pratfalls.
If there’s one thing missing from the production, however, it is serious participation by the young audience. There’s nothing particularly unusual in this; Grinagog’s The Edibles (reviewed here last Sunday, and currently on tour) and, even, Catherine Wheels’ deservedly acclaimed White both require similar early years audiences to be largely sedentary. Nevertheless, once again, I find myself longing for Scottish theatre for the very young to take the bold step into real interactivity.
That said, Bauble Trouble is a lovely piece of feelgood theatre which closes with a tremendous appearance by a very special guest, who must remain nameless. Only question is, just why does Princess Merida, of Disney Pixar’s Brave fame, end up on the top of the Christmas tree?
There’s no Christmas tree, indeed there’s nothing growing at all, in the garden of the titular protagonist of The Selfish Giant, Wee Stories’ revival of Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous tale. Performed in the fine Studio at the Festival Theatre, the story is told with the Edinburgh-based company’s customary combination of wit, style, humour and imaginative licence.
Featuring Johnstone as the eponymous colossus, this version of Wilde’s story takes us back to a Scotland before humans walked the Earth, in which rabbits, frogs and squirrels were menaced by ogres, trolls and a very self-centred, shortbread-munching giant. Gone, then, are the children of Wilde’s original, to be replaced by a host of animals (played, not too taxingly, by us, the audience), which the giant keeps out of his garden by erecting a massive wall. Gone, too, and without a hint of damage to the tale’s central moral, is Wilde’s religious conclusion.
Designed for everyone from five-years-old upwards, this smartly secularised retelling boasts a typically superb performance by Johnstone; who is a dry and witty narrator, and a hilariously knuckle-headed (and tremendously costumed) giant. Fellow performers Courtnay Collins and Tara Hodgson represent, by turns, the wintery Queen of the Snow (who occupies the giant’s garden), and the spring and autumn (which the big oaf has unwittingly locked outside). Needless to say, with painstaking accuracy, there’s no Scottish summer.
The three seasons are evoked by means of lovely costumes, beautifully attuned choreography (by Jane Howie), and clever concepts. The Queen of the Snow, for instance, speaks with a distinctly Russian accent, and is accompanied by music redolent of Europe’s far east, while spring is Celtic, both in dance and music.
It wouldn’t be a Wee Stories show without a gorgeously handcrafted set, and designer Ali Maclaurin obliges with a wonderfully versatile giant’s castle. Once again, Wee Stories have come up with a production which is enthralling, great fun and utterly distinctive to their brilliant, classy theatrical style.
As chance would have it, Wilde’s story of the greedy behemoth makes an unexpected appearance in Cumbernauld Theatre’s staging of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen. No sooner has the wicked monarch of the title (Julie Brown, a traditionally posh, English baddie) pierced the perfect heart of Kai with a shard of glass from her malevolent mirror (thus enticing him to her icy layer at the north pole), than the boy’s intrepid friend, Gerda (an energetic and sympathetic Samantha Foley), is on her way, a copy of Wilde’s book in her backpack, to rescue him.
Nor is Gerda’s choice of reading matter the only innovation on Andersen’s tale in director/designer Ed Robson’s presentation. Discarding convention, Gerda is joined on her quest by Dougie the Dug (Nicky Elliot), an extremely gallus Glaswegian labradoodle.
The production’s faithful following of Andersen’s narrative, mixed with humorous additions of its own, is a winning combination. In fact, it’s almost too successful; so responsive was Friday morning’s primary school audience to the encouragement of the fine, five-strong cast, that I feared the actors voices would never be heard.
But heard they were, enabling them to tell their story with admirable verve on Robson’s simple and effective white set. Video artist Craig Kirk’s projections are an occasional irritation early on, but they come into their own as the play reaches its, literally, heart warming conclusion.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 8, 2013
© Mark Brown