Tag Archives: Max Webster

The Jungle Book

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 March

Stories, whether set in the past or in fantasy setting, inevitably reflect the culture in which they are written. Kipling nowadays is seen as the laureate of the Raj, a view which (while perfectly legitimate from a 2018 perspective) can overshadow his real and deep understanding of India, both social and natural.

We’ve become accustomed therefore to prettied-up, emasculated versions of the Jungle Book stories. The Children’s Touring Partnership’s new production is certainly of our time and place, but – for me, at any rate – it captures most of the essence of the original.

This is a musical version, scripted by Jessica Swale with an original score by Joe Stilgoe. Max Webster’s direction sets his cast on a revolve with a scaffolding set by Peter McKintosh (who also designed the costumes) and choreography by Lizzi Gee which exploits both the pack and the solo nature of wild animals.

A succession of puppets by Nick Barnes ranges from the simplicity of those representing the child Mowgli  and the kite Chil to the glistening coils (lots of them) of the python Kaa (Rachel Dawson). Central to the story is Mowgli, feral in more than one way, who Keziah Joseph fully brings to life (and our sympathetic understanding).

Lloyd Gorman’s Shere Khan is a commanding villain with the height and presence to command his scenes as well as the jungle denizens; he also has a very good singing voice. His opposite number is Dyfrig Morris’ Balloo, a sloth bear with just a touch of Paddington and Winnie the Pooh – not to mention the pantomime comic.

As the wolf-pack leader Akela, Tripti Tripuraneni radiates the right sort of authority as in the different way does Deborah Oyelade’s Bagheera with a panther-like disregard for slower creatures. Most of the cast take on other roles, including the dangerously mischievous Bandar-Log tribe of monkeys.

Costumes, movements and Charles Balfour’s lighting remind us that we are in an Indian jungle butting onto human villages, villages whose relations with the water-holes and vegetation around them both nurture and threaten. It’s probably not a show for very young children, but it is one to provoke thought.

After all, that’s what story-telling has been doing for millenia.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Jungle Book continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 March with matinées on 22 and 24 March. The tour also includes the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 April.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

King Lear

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016