Preview: The Jungle Book by Jessica Swale

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LONDON – An all new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved classic The Jungle Book hits theatres this November. Written by Jessica Swale and directed by Max Webster, with music by internationally renowned jazz songwriter Joe Stilgoe, the production will premiere Royal & Derngate, Northampton on 28th November and runs till 31st December before embarking on a UK national tour, starting in Chichester.

Last adapted as a live action cinematic film by Disney in 2016, the coming of age, family friendly story will feature an all new score and script, and explore themes of family, belonging and identity. Raised by a pack of wolves, the ‘man cub’ Mowgli (Keziah Joseph) must fight for survival as he grows up in the jungle, befriending friends such as the panther Bagheera (Deborah Oyelade) and bear Balloo (Dyfrig Morris) as they outwit and outlast the menacing tiger Shere Khan (Lloyd Gorman) and learn the law of the jungle.

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Director Max Webster is best known for his work with the Old Vic, and his work on Dr Seuss’ The Lorax at the Old Vic was nominated for Best Entertainment and Family Show at the 2016 Olivier Awards. Dubbed as one of the most creative and imaginative minds working in theatre today, we sat down and posed him a few questions about the upcoming adaptation of The Jungle Book.

BCM: You’ve done plenty of ‘Children’s Theatre’ such as The Lorax and The Twits. What’s the most rewarding thing about directing such shows as opposed to say Shakespeare?

Max: I’ve never really thought there’s any difference. Both are about making a story as exciting and engaging as possible. Creating a beautiful and rewarding experience, that reaches out to a broad and diverse audience, welcoming them into a theatre, and taking them on a journey. And besides I never think of them as shows for children. They’re shows for everyone. The thing with shows aimed at the whole family, it they have the biggest and most open audiences possible – ones where grandparents can enjoy along with their grandchildren, and even couples on a date. A young people’s imaginations are amazingly vibrant so it’s great to make shows for them, but the best thing of all is to have everyone, all ages, laughing and crying at the same time.

BCM: There’ve already been several adaptations of The Jungle Book, such as Disney’s recent live action film. What makes this production stand out and a must-see? (We hear there’ll be incredible puppetry by Nick Barnes!)

Max: It’s going to be funny. And bold. And surprising. And packed with good jokes, stunning design, a moving story, brilliant and hummable new songs. Everything you loved about the old Jungle Book with an exciting modern twist.

BCM: If you were an animal, what animal would it be and why?

Max: I always thought I was secretly a tiger.

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Photo Credit: Jane Hobson

Meanwhile, playwright Jessica Swale has won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016 for her critically acclaimed take on Nell Gwyn, and is beyond excited to be adapting the children’s classic. We got some words in with the stunning theatremaker and were impressed with her intelligent and thoughtful answers:

BCM: What drew you to adapting The Jungle Book in the first place? What was your own experience with The Jungle Book prior to joining the team?

Jessica: Well – the truth is my childhood experience of The Jungle Book was fairly limited as, when my mum took me to see the Disney film in the cinema, I was so excited that I climbed all over the seats pretending to be a monkey, and we were asked to leave. That was the last time Mum took me to the cinema. So, yes, I loved it, though I never knew what happened at the end.

I was thrilled to be asked to write this adaptation because the book itself is so episodic, picaresque even, that it demands a great deal of invention to make it into a play. The original novel is a series of short, relatively unconnected stories, so there was a great opportunity to choose the tastiest morsels and reimagine them as something which might resonate now, for a young, contemporary audience. The story itself appealed to me for both the vivid characters and the joy and mystery of the Jungle. I like that the jungle can be anything we choose. I think of it as a playground, Mowgli’s school, a hunting ground, a hideaway, a place to escape, so I hope there’s something for everyone.

BCM: It’s a jungle out there in the world of theatre. How did you get your big break in writing? Where do you get your best ideas from and what are you most inspired by?

Jessica: I never planned to be a writer. I was a director, and was very happy doing just that. It was only when I came across some inspiring nuggets of history (a riot over women’s rights to graduate from University) that I felt compelled to write a play, to give voice to that story. That was my first play, Blue Stockings. Then Dominic Dromgoole read it and asked if he could put it on at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the rest is history. It’s now on the GCSE syllabus and I’m writing the TV series so it really has grown from a kernel into something continually evolving. That was the beginning. Since then I’ve been busy writing a mixture of theatre and films, and have been lucky enough to have the luxury of writing original works, alongside adaptations, both of which I enjoy equally; the muscles you exercise in working from scratch help you better understand classics when you’re adapting them, and vice versa. And I get ideas from all sorts of places- sometimes from journals, factual books, articles or anecdotes, but most often just from the muddy depths of my own imagination.

BCM: If you had an animal best friend, what animal would it be and why?

Jessica: Tough one. Practically, I’d like a colony of ants, as they’re pretty clever and I think I could train them to build stuff. I could have a whole city! But if I couldn’t have them, then an armadillo. People need cheering up a bit, and I reckon if I took him on the tube with me, he’d make people smile.

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Well, as Jessica succinctly puts it, people certainly do need some cheering up in dour times as now, and there’s no better way to do it than to get you and your family tickets to check out this enchanting production of The Jungle Book as it travels around the UK. No armadillos promised, but you’ll no doubt be laughing and smiling and enjoying yourself at this show set to be impeccably produced and brimming with heart and the magic of theatre.

The Jungle Book plays at Royal & Derngate, Northampton from 28th November to 31st December. Tickets available here. The show will continue to tour the rest of the UK before hitting London from 6th – 10th February 2018 at the Richmond Theatre

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