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Watermill - The Jungle Book

23rd November 2005 to 7th January 2006.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

The 'mill full of monkey business

The Jungle Book, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until January 7

Watermill press performances can be a bit of a hoot, with their smattering of the great and good from the nationals leaving London to partake of our country air, alongside friends and family of the cast and production team - you never know who you might end up chatting to.

Soundbites, overheard in the bar, are priceless.

Take Saturday, after the evening performance of The Jungle Book, much enjoyed by the young audience who, entering into the spirit of the show were one step ahead of the plot.

At the next table to us, a precious theatrical soul held forth, cigarette on slow burn between meticulously manicured fingers, on the merits of minimalist sets versus lavish costumes.

On this night, The Watermill did what it does best and Kipling's tale was honestly told by an ensemble of six actor/musicians playing nine parts on a deliberately bad hair day all round -just check out Baloo's flea-bitten barnet.

It involved much monkey business, strung between the balcony and stalls on a brilliantly simple set of ladders and clustered banana lanterns.

Man-Cub Mowgli, played by nine-coming-on-25-year-old Matthew Woodyatt with a tendency to lope, brought about by his weird upbringing in the company of wolves, was snatched from Akela (Emma Manton) and the pack and initiated into the ways of the apes.

But never far away, looking out for him, are the snuggly car-coated bear Baloo (David Plimmer) and Claire Storey's perky combat-trousered panther Bagheera.

Ever-lurking was the menace of Shere Khan - in the shape of deliciously Irish Justin McCarron -a veritable tiger in reptile skin clothing, with flowing locks and Green Day mascara (and later a ninny of an ex-pat Sergeant Major).

The diminutive You-Ri Yamanaka, too, was delightful in her deft movement and mannerisms, not least as the hypnotic cobra.

My 12-year-old co-critic, seasoned in Watermill productions, put into words what was in my head. While The Jungle Book was a jolly journey from forest to village as Mowgli searched for man's secret of fire, we missed the spark of magic and mystery of past Christmas shows.

Still, the production has sold for the season. So the likes of us critics should probably go swing in the trees.


From Reviews Gate.

Lively, entertaining - but could do with a bit more challenge and a bit less pre-show teacher input

I sat at 10.30am in a packed Watermill full of excited children… I listened in dismay as a teacher stood at the front of the stalls and told the auditorium that the first ten minutes would be scary, the tiger not real, this was a pantomime… this was scenery etc etc. So illusions destroyed – what a way for a young audience to encounter theatre!

Well it wasn’t scary, Shere Khan had a kind of lounge lizard look that suggested a deal of mischief but no one took fright and so it continued. Neil Duffield has a niche in adapting popular children’s tales for Christmas and Watermill have produced a few of these. The Jungle Book is not my favourite adaptation and all recent excursions into the territory have displayed a kind of sub The Lion King approach. This one, directed by Andy Brereton has moments especially in the first half when the old magic works – I loved the cobra guardian of the ancient treasure but after the interval there was a descent into broad comedy that didn’t really advance the story or complete it.

The design by Gary McCann evokes a jungle world of ropes, structures and pits effectively and a multi-skilled company of actor-musician cover a wide range of roles animal and human yet I felt a little short changed on the concept, the aerial rope work does not do much at all, Baloo resembles a roadside tramp, en route from Godot dropping by for work and often the ‘human’ qualities of the animals are overstated by the costumes. I did think Claire Storey’s Bagheera got it right and there is no doubt the show tells a swift story effectively. I think I wanted the more challenging moments of the story to be taken seriously, children can cope with difficult subjects, witness the National’s triumphant and complex Coram Boy.

The Jungle Book is a lively and certainly entertaining show with all the production values one expects from Watermill, yet I left feeling that so much more could be achieved with better material for today’s young audience. Finally I would ban teachers from giving pre-show talks to shatter illusion and magic.


From The Stage.

Director Andy Brereton and the Watermill Theatre are a match made in heaven, particularly at this time of year when the two go together as effectively as the proverbial mince pies and brandy cream.

Following on from last year’s success with The Arabian Nights, Brereton directs The Jungle Book using similar originality and creative techniques to produce the Kipling stories as an artistic, entertaining and imaginative piece of theatre.

The jungle vegetation is resourcefully designed by Gary McCann with incredibly effective lighting by Lawrence T Doyle and the costumes are an attractive mixture of contemporary modernism and Asian tradition.

As has come to be expected at the Watermill, the cast are a versatile bunch incorporating Janie Armour’s original music into their roles and using their movement and acting skills to represent both animals and humans. Emma Manton, You-Ri Yamanaka and Justin McCarron are a wild bunch as the Bander Log monkeys with them each playing a variety of other roles including Messua, the Cobra and Shere Khan respectively. Yamanaka’s snake is a masterpiece in movement and McCarron’s tiger strikes a menacing gothic pose.

David Plimmer is an amiable Baloo with Claire Storey as Bagheera and Matthew Woodyatt as an appealing Mowgli.


From Whatsonstage.

Four stars
It’s extraordinary to think that Rudyard Kipling, the archetypal Englishman, writer of If, the country’s most popular poem, felt in fact like an outsider all his life, from his public schooldays on. And this, if the reader cares to look for it, comes over in all his work, including The Jungle Book.

From the moment the jungle bursts into the audience on Gary McCann’s versatile multi-levelled set, the story of Mowgli the man-cub and his friends and enemies in the jungle and amongst humankind cones vividly and dangerously to life. Director Andy Brereton and Janie Armour, composer and musical director, do real justice to Neil Duffield’s fluent honing down of this epic tale. Duffield homes in on Mowgli’s struggles to fit in – never quite at home or accepted among the jungle creatures or in the villages of men.

Six actor/musicians double in roles that would be substantial to take on singly. They succeed in making the stage teem with life – both animal and human. Justin McCarron’s sexy rock idol tiger Shere Khan, revelling in his ruthless power, sets the story in motion with a thrilling opening number that could easily become a chart-topping rock anthem. His figure hugging suit and mane of hair add to the image and remind us that Kipling’s creatures are anthropomorphic, even as he seeks to find their animal essence.

The actors understand this and each has found a way to suggest that essence. You-Ri Yamanaka is feisty and motherly as Raksha, Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother and doubles as a hypnotically glamorous cobra. Emma Manton’s allure begins with her smile - threatening and defiant as Akela the chief wolf and warm and motherly as Messua, Mowgli’s real mother. As Mowgli’s mentors, Claire Storey has found the soft-footed prowling cat in Bagheera the panther and David Plimmer the ponderous lumber of Baloo the bear.

Matthew Woodyatt’s Mowgli effectively provides the sympathetic centre of the action. The village of men is more important in this reading perhaps than in the book for Mowgli’s adventures there make up the second half of the play. Duffield takes this chance to send up British imperialism, it gives McCarron a chance to double as an absurd Sergeant Major, and everybody gets to tell a couple of Just So stories to good effect.

For me the highlights of a terrific seasonal show were the unnerving chatter of the Bandalog (the unpredictable and uncontrollable monkey people), and Mowgli’s terrifying discovery of fire – a marvellous stage effect. No wonder the family audience applauded the cast long and loud at the curtain call.


From the Sunday Times.

Four stars
Disneyfied versions of Kipling’s story have so drenched it in sugar and pumped it up with E numbers that its value seems irrecoverable. But from the moment Justin McCarron’s Shere Khan leaps onto the stage, more death-metal rock star than hungry tiger, we know we are in for some well-handled terror, conflict and moral dilemmas, as well as laughter and song. Neil Duffield’s script, Janie Armour’s music and Gary McCann’s ingenious and colourful design use six actor/singer/musicians to create the parallel worlds of jungle and village with imaginative panache. Matthew Woodyatt’s Mowgli is no squeaky-clean innocent, but a boy who has to learn to grow up. It makes excellent entertainment for bright kids — without in any way being patronising to adults.