BIG INTERVIEW: playwright Jessica Swale, composer Joe Stilgoe and director Max Webster  

Susan Elkin spoke to playwright Jessica Swale, composer Joe Stilgoe and director Max Webster during the rehearsals for a brand-new adaptation of The Jungle Book which opened at Royal and Derngate, Northampton before Christmas and tours nationally this year.

Everyone connected with this production mentions the 1967 Disney film, with its songs by George Bruns which have become part of the national consciousness.

“I saw the film when I was very young” recalls Jessica Swale, playwright, who has written this new version. “And I loved it – and those songs – so much that I was an embarrassment to my mother in the cinema. Until recently I don’t think I’d ever read the book or maybe only once very perfunctorily as a child. But of course, it was the book – and the stories – which I had to get back to – in order to write this version. It is the book which is the original, not the film.”

“Yes, it’s funny about those George Bruns songs” says composer Joe Stilgoe. “I remember loving them too and we all know them so well. For this project, first we needed to remember them and then make a big effort to put them right out of mind because this is an entirely different version. I’ve written all new music with lots of influences from all over the world because our jungle goes way beyond the confines of India. It’s a global jungle for everyone.”

Jessica, whose recent successes as a playwright include Nell Gwynne and Blue Stockings, has been a director for many years and now works a lot in film. Having accepted the commission, she went off to read The Jungle Book carefully “I eventually chose two stories which I felt we could use to say something positive about diversity using language which is less verbose and poetic than Kipling’s original words and more speakable”

Jessica’s next task was to expand, develop and weave together her two central stories in a way that makes it accessible for families. “The most important thing is to find a dramatic structure”, she says, “And to ensure that we never lose the sense of being in a jungle because that’s what people come to see. I also wanted to convey a very positive message in a light-hearted, enjoyable way.”

And as for arranging the narrative for a specific number of actors, Jessica doesn’t worry about that while she’s writing. “You have to focus on story telling if it’s going to work. There are lots of characters and Joe and I wanted to give them plenty of voice. That means expanding the scope of who they are and what they do, but then it’s for Max and the actors to find ways of making that work with a relatively small cast”.

In the event, there are ten actors in the cast for this show. “We wanted a company which was as diverse as possible” Max says. “So we – casting director Angela Cowell and I – auditioned with that in mind. In the end, some of the cast are actors we already knew and others are new to us. We needed five of them to be able to play musical instruments.” Cast ethnicity, both he and Jessica say, is deliberately “vague” and this show is definitely not set in India.

There have been many adaptations of The Jungle Book. What makes this one different? “We wanted to take the story we all know and make it modern, playful upbeat and something for today” says Max. “The Jungle Book is about difference and inclusion and asks some very important questions. We think it’s urgent and relevant although it certainly isn’t preachy or heavy”.

Jessica agrees. “In the original, Mowgli had to give up the jungle and go and live in the man village because he was a man. He thinks that is his only choice. Our take is that even after Mowgli has moved on, and the two ways of life can complement each other. There is more than one choice. It isn’t a story about outsiders and insiders.”

For Jessica, The Jungle Book is about an individual working out how to fit in when he isn’t sure where he is. “There are immigration issues here as well as diversity” she says, observing that, fun as the show is, it is very topical. “A family show for the Brexit era?” she asks, only half joking.

Joe was originally commissioned to write four songs – just one at the beginning and end of each of the two acts. “It’s become a bit of a joke between the three of us because now there are twelve” he grins, admitting that he really wanted “a song for everyone”.

“That’s just because Joe is a genius and keeps coming up with more and more material that the rest of us like so much that we all wanted to include it” says Max. And Jessica describes the show as now “essentially a musical” which has undergone “lots of reshaping” as it has developed.

Best known as a jazz singer, song writer and pianist (not to mention being the son of Richard Stilgoe), Joe says “I can often hear a song in my head when I look at a scene and that’s what happened with a lot of the music for The Jungle Book although I usually sit at the piano to compose in detail. He has collaborated extensively with Jessica on the words for the songs too.

Having come to working in theatre only fairly recently (“I am also now involved with a possible full-length musical but that’s still in development” he says in passing) Joe is full of praise for Jessica. “She has written a Jungle Book which is more appealing than any other adaptation I’ve seen” he says. “It retains elements of Kipling and even a bit of the magic of the film, but it’s also mystical and lovely. When I read the script, I could hear the style of the songs – variously joyful, sad, dramatic and dangerous”.

Joe is delighted with the decision to use a talented Portuguese percussionist who, on stage throughout, provides a central musical focus. “The rest of it simply comes together through the skills of the cast, especially the five actor musicians amongst them. How brilliant it is to be, say, a convincing monkey and play the cello at the same time!”

The show includes incidental music as well as the Stilgoe songs, which musical supervisor Paul Herbert has arranged and taught to the cast. “I think the non-song music shows a different side of me” says Joe. “I grew up listening to music of all sorts from all over the world and some of that eclecticism has influenced my contributions to this show. Some of the music has an African or Indian flavour, for example. This is a jungle for everyone.”

The word all three of these creatives use most often is “playful”. Max, a freelance director with a long CV which includes both the Globe and the Old Vic, hopes it’s a show which has “jokes, laughter and joy” and plenty to say without being “heavy”.

I asked Max about the directorial challenges which The Jungle Book presented. “Live music is always a challenge but I was a musician myself and I know just how very much young people love it and how it helps with the atmosphere. When it’s integral to the action you have to rehearse with the music in place. You can’t in any way bolt it on afterwards. So we’ve had singing at every rehearsal”.

Max isn’t a bossy director, he says. “My job is to supervise and to help people find the best ways of bringing this story to life as we all set off on the journey together. It’s very collaborative. It’s a matter of helping people to invent stuff and then editing their inventions. Naturally I make the final decisions but I rarely have to referee in disagreements.

“The Jungle Book is so well known that everyone knows something about it that it’s almost as if it were a folk story” says Max Webster, director of Touring Children’s Partnership’s new production in partnership with theatre company Fiery Angel. “Our challenge was to find a way of presenting an 1894 book of short stories, set in India, to a much wider audience”