Derby Theatre raise the stakes in integrating sign language into their production of The Jungle Book

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Derby Theatre’s family friendly production of The Jungle Book is playing until Saturday 20 April. Award-winning writer Neil Duffield’s new adaptation is inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s magical stories with fully integrated BSL interpretation and captioning. Review by Melissa Mostyn

two female actors with big smiles on their faces, crouch on stage,

The Jungle Book at Derby Theatre. Iniki Mariano as Mowgli and Esme Sears as Bagheera. Photo Robert Day

Raised by wolves as an orphan, Mowgli continues to live and play in the jungle until the man-eating tiger Shere Khan learns of his existence. Bagheera and Baloo decide to move him to a man-village for safety. En route to the village however, prankster monkeys abduct Mowgli and Baloo has to sing and dance his way in to rescue him.

Matters don’t improve once they reach the man-village. The local Sergeant-Major distrusts Mowgli’s wolf-boy demeanour immediately, and only Messua combats his threats by insisting on love and compassion instead. Ultimately Mowgli saves himself and the village when he discovers a “secret red flower” that will seal their fate from the evil Khan.

a male actor dressed as a tiger crouches on stage

The Jungle Book at Derby Theatre. Elliott Rennie as Shere Khan. Photo Robert Day

As Derby Theatre’s first ever integrated BSL musical production, The Jungle Book is a remarkable community effort. There’s a freshness to the storytelling that can only come from young, or young-minded people, mucking in. Not just the ensemble cast – many of who are of school age and belong to the local community theatre group – but also the professional actors, none of who display any airs and graces, but instead play along with the fun.

Iniki Mariano is wonderfully limber and mischievous as Mowgli, while Becky Barry’s Queen of Cobras shimmers darkly with exoticism. Esme Sears’ Bagheera combines cat-like sleekness with languid benevolence, highlighting Ivan Stott’s loveable bear-like scattiness as Baloo. Meanwhile Caroline Parker, Becky Barry (again) and Emily Rose Salter, who also plays Raksha, Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother, are on hand to translate to BSL for anyone who speaks on stage.

It takes a lot for BSL integrated theatre to impress me. Combining captioning, BSL, Sign Supported English (SSE), gesture, visual storytelling and song is an enormous undertaking; it demands both full co-operation from cast and crew, and properly qualified, all-encompassing BSL advice and support. I often worry that the BSL will get hampered, which is not unfounded by experience.

On occasion I’ve had to sit in a perpetual cringe throughout a production because somebody didn’t think through the sets, the lighting, the costumes, the positioning, and thought they’d wing it when incorporating sign language. The result is poorly constructed theatre, with no hope whatever of engaging with their deaf audiences – while the hearing audiences marvel at how inclusive they are. It’s the ultimate insult to deaf people’s intelligence when visual storytelling is such a vital part of their culture.

A female actor dressed in green poses with hands held aloft, next to a male actor dressed in brown

The Jungle Book at Derby Theatre. Caroline Parker as Tabaqui and Ivan Stott as Baloo. Photo Robert Day

To that end director Sarah Brigham, associate director Emily Howlett and creative associate Rowan Warnock – ably supported by Creative BSL consultant Daryl Jackson – should all be applauded for their open-mindedness, enthusiasm, and steady commitment. It really shows in the coherence of the play, extending to set and costume design.

I was pleased to read in the programme that costumes deliberately kept arms and hands free for signing, with plain background colours on body areas so hands could be clearly seen. Dressing the monkeys as a pink-stripe pyjama party with zany glasses was a clever touch, as was depicting the wolves’ fur as voluminous clothing rags. Lighting was well-positioned so no signing was obscured, and I loved how the jungle resembled a Tamara de Lempicka painting made into 3D with its giant, yet sensual, Art Deco foliage.

The Jungle Book plays at Derby Theatre from Friday 5 April until Saturday 20 April. Go see it if you can, even it means staying over in Derby for the night.