Wednesday June 1st 2022 at the Pleasance Theatre, London.
Reviewer: Maygan Forbes
Spectacular! Energetic! Electrifying! A true masterpiece of a musical, thoughtful and well rounded – The Concrete Jungle Book is an explosion of black talent in the UK theatre scene. Described as a hip hop musical and survival guide, Dominic Garfield (writer and director) catapults Rudyard Kipling’s classic story into inner-city Britain with live rap music, grime, reggae, spoken word and big personality.
As the jungle’s trees become tower blocks, Mo(wgli) (played by Lauryn Louise) navigates her way through relationships, unstable housing conditions and hostile creatures, trying to find the parental figures she has always longed for. Mo’s world is overly stimulated with temptation everywhere, the jungle sees her as fresh meat, whilst she is searching for a home and a sense of belonging. The Concrete Jungle Book storms the stage with a great rush of energy and a swirl of performances from the multi talented crew: Roshini, Joseph Ra Lindsay (character: Bagheera), Jack Boal (characters: Louie Slippaz, Pete, Sticky Nicky), Micheal Mbozo (characters: Kaa, Hitman, Matthew), Ché Gordon (characters: Trevor, Tyler, Clipse), Che Campbell (characters: Jeff, Luke, Sniper).
The musical soundtrack (which I desperately need to be on a streaming platform!) subtly and rather hauntingly paints the world of the “jungle’s” inhabitants. What is not discussed in dialogue is expressed passionately through the lyric. Using a mix of actors and spoken word performers, the songs’ intended impact lands a strong punch and the effect is obsessively eery. Led under the direction of both Garfield and Fahd Shaft (assistant director), musical director Kwame ‘KZ’ Kwei-Armah Jnr contributes to the stage his skill for discovering and developing established and emerging musical artists. Working with a lot of big names in the UK urban scene, Kwei-Armah celebrates hip hop and grime music with his breathtaking addition to the direction on stage.
Garfield sets out to dramatise the despair of children under the foster care system, battling a system that is so inherently broken. Miss Matthews (played by Lesley Rietta Cobbina) has run a foster home for decades. Passed down through generations, she had hopes and dreams that went unrecognised in the pursuit of trying to keep the foster house afloat. Where she was once a loving, caring foster mother, she now plays an apathetic Miss Hannigan-esque character. Lonely and desperate and passing her days with copious amounts of brown liquor to keep herself going.
The saddest reality of Miss Matthews is that although her character is dramatised for stage, Miss Matthews exists all across the UK – with the rising cost of living, and social care and housing failures on its knees, the trickle down effect is concerning. But if Miss Matthews is turning a blind eye to what is happening with the children under her care, and society is also – what does that mean for those kid’s futures? With no sense of community or identity, what manifests is a dysfunction and a neurotic obsession with finding that stable foundation – no matter what it takes.
The second half of the play, we transition into the jungle. Mo has run away from home in order to find her own way in this life. At the tender age of 16, she believes anything is possible. Armed with just her pink bike, scarf and handbag she sets off. Set designer Ethan Cheek does a phenomenal job in painting the picture, with graffitied bin bags, an over perfumed stage – the smell of incense lingers on stage further intensifying the action on stage. Creek’s stage design is faultless in creating an illusion of the jungle skid row/Gotham City – if you look closely enough in society, you’ll find that the Gotham exists all around us.
The story has the perfect balance of empathetic resonance for a culture of the hopelessness and loneliness children may feel in foster care, and how easy it is to fall into the cycle of grooming gangs and county lines. As Mo searches for her tribe, she comes across “animals” in the jungle who want her to commit crimes in exchange for their loyalty and protection. The ruthlessness of the jungle is something that is learned from an early age in the game and she must find a way to beat them or join them. The 2012 film Ill Manors (directed by Ben Drew/Plan B) has a lot of similarities with the Concrete Jungle Book in the themes that are outlined on stage as a result of a neglectful foster care system; the poverty, alienation and despair that arguably created the conditions for violence.
Back after a smash hit run in 2021, updated and expanded to showcase the diverse talents of HighRise’s NewGens company, this is The Jungle Book like you’ve never imagined. I urge that everyone gets a chance to see this show, it really is something spectacular.
The Concrete Jungle Book plays thePleasance Theatre, London until June 11th 2022 and you can find tickets here.
Images credit: Mary Melodies