Chichester Festival Theatre, W Sussex
Opened 17 June, 2004

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are the Tim Henman of stage musical writers: appealingly English, and quite well liked, but they can never really get as far as the major finals, so to speak.  Their Rudyard Kipling musical Just So is agreeable fare for a summer evening.  But you can see why, even with Cameron Mackintosh behind it when it was being developed in the late 1980s, it didn’t quite make it into the West End.

Stiles and Drewe adeptly piece together several of Kipling’s stories about how various animals came to be as they are.  Here, the inquisitive Elephant’s Child and the Kolokolo Bird go off on a great quest, and discover along the way how the leopard got its spots, the rhino its baggy skin, that sort of thing.  In general, these high-speed evolutions are set up in the first act, with the payoffs coming after the interval.

The story’s really about the getting of wisdom, learning to co-exist and so on. It has a comfortably sentimental tone.  It does, though, seem rather bitty and episodic. This isn’t helped by the feeling that the writers may have a checklist of musical genres, ticking them off one by one: power ballad, rock pastiche, reggae, comic dance number...  There’s even an MC Hammer gag: topical in 1990, but just odd and obscure now.

Peter McKintosh’s design is clever and versatile: a step-ladder and a few parasol frames become a palm grove, the rhino is a rampaging schoolboy in grey, and the kangaroo’s thighs inflate!  Anthony Drewe himself directs; here, too, you can see that there are sharp ideas around, but that overplaying them even a little can dull the enjoyment.  Mind you, it’s novel to see a cast list that includes “Boring Wildebeest”...

Junix Inocian is a strong anchor as the Eldest Magician, and Julie Atherton makes a superbly sardonic, northern Kolokolo Bird. But pretty much every character gets their chance to shine.  The Julian Slade/Sandy Wilson-era feel of the songs somehow complements the slightly quaint air of the stories.  It all works pleasantly enough as part of a Chichester season. But it won’t find a special place in your memory.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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