HighRise Theatre have swapped jungle foliage for urban towers in their reinterpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Concrete Jungle Book. In an interview with Reuters, actor and director Dominic Garfield describes how in “The story of Mowgli, the feral boy trying to make his way in the jungle, we straight away saw a real resemblance in young people trying to find their way on the streets when they are homeless and have difficult housing conditions.” The production follows Mowgli the orphan, separated from his mother who has snuck across the UK border, and his journey from foster care into life on the streets. His story nods towards the refugee crisis and inflated rent market, showing how rapidly vulnerable young people can fall through the cracks and then the lengths that they will go to to survive.
The group seem to have taken a lot of their inspiration from Walt Disney’s cartoon adaptation. They have retained its colour, high-energy, and humour so that you could almost mistake the performance for a family show, if it wasn’t for the plot’s sudden dark turns into gang violence and hunger. This contradiction makes the difficult realities shown onstage hit harder. We already know and love the characters – the performers have worked hard on their physicality to keep the essence of each animal – and here they are enduring hardships without any technicolour gloss. A snake becomes a homeless veteran, and a tribe of monkeys becomes a notorious street gang. The use of euphemisms from a children’s story to talk about life outside the system makes for heartbreaking watching.
Like the film, this production is a musical. Hip hop and grime numbers are punctuated with dialogue delivered in rhyme, so that The Concrete Jungle Book is half-spoken word and half-rap. The entire play is rooted in a genre with deep ties to urban communities and discussions of race. That grime makes an appearance gives the performance a specifically British political context. This is a play about how the UK fails migrants from formerly colonised nations – one Jamaican Baloo, for instance – and the asylum seekers arriving on its shores.