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Review: The Jungle Book at Unity Theatre ***

In a world of Cinderellas, Snow Whites and Peter Pans, the Unity Theatre has always resolutely ploughed its own festive storytelling path.

From tales of Pied Pipers, to argumentative peas (and feisty princesses), to last year’s spellbinding Little Red and the Big Bad Wolf, the Unity – and its partner Action Transport Theatre – have consistently created inventive and magical Christmas shows.

This year they turn to Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of the ‘man cub’ Mowgli – a tale of friendship and belonging, of good and evil, and what it means to be human in this fragile world.

The usual elements are there; a four-strong cast who create the world of the jungle and its many inhabitants through physical storytelling, a set by a LIPA design undergraduate (Sascha Gilmour) that transforms itself throughout the story, and original music and songs – this year by Angus McLeod rather than regular collaborator Patrick Dineen. Nina Hajiyianni directs Kevin Dyer’s script.

And yet. And yet. There’s something missing, something indefinable that means it’s just not as enchanting as it should be. Dare I say it, it feels....rather ordinary.

Mowgli (Asif Majid) in The Jungle Book

There are some lovely moments during the show which opens, promisingly, with the wonderfully poetic lines: “The jungle is the book. The story is in the trees, and the trees are as high as the sky.”

There are the trio of vultures waiting, patiently, for their dinner. Joe Shipman’s warm-hearted slob Baloo, joyously rubbing his back and bottom on a rock. The mischievous and athletic orangutans (from the film not the book) with their hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil poses, and ambitious desire to rule the jungle. The physical manifestation of Kaa the hypnotic snake. And the fleeing of Shere Khan by Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli, inventively realised via puppetry in miniature.

It’s frustrating then that the whole should feel less than the sum of its parts.

Mowgli (Asif Majid) is particularly brattish, making him hard to warm to as the hero of the piece, while the original songs fail to make much impact, and some of the dialogue is lost under the level of young audience chatter and rustling of sweet bags.

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