POPPY Burton-Morgan, founder of Metta Theatre, tells EDWIN GILSON about her company’s innovative take on the children’s classic.

WHEN I was a small boy I was infatuated with Disney’s Jungle Book film. At one point I watched it every day. My parents sometimes called me Mowgli. But what would my toddler self have made of a radical new version of Rudyard Kipling’s animal kingdom? A world in which Mowgli is a girl, Kaa the snake is a Chinese pole dancer and Shere Khan is master of a form of dance called bone breaking?

I would have been confused at the very least. But a theatre company who have created this alternate universe say that audiences young and old have embraced the changes to Kipling’s original story. Metta Theatre have situated The Jungle Book in a modern, urban context with characters that rap, break-dance and perform dazzling feats of physical theatre (it’s part of Worthing Theatres’ Summer of Circus, after all).

Artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan revels in producing shows which revolve around the various accessible components of “street art” (she’s in charge of a hip-hop Wind in the Willows coming soon).

“Hip-hop theatre is the future,” she says: “Skateboarding, parkour... these urban art forms are very thrilling and they translate very well to animals.” You might think it would be strange for children, familiar with the Disney film, to see their favourite characters portrayed as real-life humans – let alone dancing and rapping.

But Burton-Morgan says the various incarnations of Jungle Book figures are instantly recognisable. “Even my three-year-old knows the guy going up the pole is Kaa.” She adds: “A lot of audiences come to the show thinking it’s going to be closer to the Disney film and then go, ‘oh this is something else’. But the cast are so charming and awe-inspiring that it’s difficult not to fall in love with that.”

Just as Rudyard Kipling’s original story contained a social critique of 19th century India, Metta Theatre’s modernisation of the story facilitates their socially aware approach. Burton-Morgan uses Mowgli’s alienation as a vehicle for an examination of our modern age. “There are huge comments on social class and belonging,” she says.

“Mowgli doesn’t feel like she belongs in the animal or human world but ultimately she finds her voice as an artist.” Note the artist director says “she”. The company took the decision to make Jungle Book’s central character a girl, a choice which has certainly paid off if audience feedback is anything to go by.

“From the comments we get from girls we can tell it’s such a big thing for them to see themselves portrayed on stage. In the original story, every single character is male. Re-gendering character is a massive, massive thing for us.”

Another “massive” motivation for Burton-Morgan is to inject empathy into her productions – Metta derives from a Buddhist word for compassion. “We always have a moment of compassion for the villain characters,” she says. “Shere Khan, for instance, is arrested by the police but at the end of the show we hear him do an internal monologue which has a lot of remorse in it. “It’s things like that that give the other side of the story. We’re not saying ‘these people are good, these people are bad’.”

Burton-Morgan co-runs the company with her husband, Will Reynolds. While she admits that the group can be “all-consuming” in the couple’s shared life, she adds she wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re happy to let it consume us.”

Jungle Book
Connaught Theatre, Worthing
tomorrow and Sunday, Tomorrow: 2pm and 7pm. Sunday: 11am and 2pm. For tickets and more information visit worthingtheatres.co.uk