Just So was performed by students from the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA) at the Bridewell Theatre, London.
When selecting a musical for performance by a class of students who are coming to the end of their time at college, there are few that provide a sufficiently wide range of characters for most, if not all, of the class to get their chance in the spotlight. Stiles and Drewe’s Just So, based on the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, is ideal for the Musical Theatre Academy’s final year students in two ways – not only does the anthological origin ensure plenty of set pieces for individual characters, but the composers are patrons of the school as well.
A story of how all the animals of the world grew to be so different from one another, Kipling’s standalone stories are transformed into the tale of how an inquisitive young elephant and his friend, the Kolokolo bird, track down the giant crab Pau Amma, whose playing in the world’s oceans is causing tidal floods. As they travel around the world, they meet a bevy of creatures, inadvertently helping each to take the form we know today.
As the travelling animals who provide the framing narrative, Phil McCloskey’s Elephant is an engaging, childlike figure. His relentless optimism in the face of adversity plays well against the more reticent Kolokolo bird, who in Jordan Matthews’ portrayal is a rather forlorn, flightless creature who blossoms in Act II, just as Matthews does herself with the solo number, ‘Wait a Bit’.
Of the characters they meet on their travels, it is the double acts that resonate: Chantelle Kemp and Millie-Rose Keutenius as Giraffe and Zebra, who create their own patch of Essex on the African savannah, and send up TOWIE-style subculture while being pursued by feline gangsters Ross Harbron and Sam Toland as Leopard and Jaguar. But it is the peculiar relationship between a chef (Jordan Hawkins) and his cooking stove (Richard Watkins) that is both the play’s most surreal pairing, and its most successful.
There are plenty of great touches in this production directed by Christian Durham, from the Kangaroo’s early days as the lead singer in a marsupial boyband (Cameron Hay and his backing dancers revelling in the cheekily slick dance moves, lovingly pastiched by choreographer Cressida Carré) to an effective realisation of the giant crab Pau Amma that combines great voice work by Jessica West with set and puppetry work that provides a fitting conclusion to the piece.
It is perhaps unfortunate that sound balance issues meant that the accomplished band, under the supervision of musical director Inga Davis-Rutter, sometimes overwhelmed the voices of the young students whom this musical was designed to showcase. But such minor problems could not detract from the sight of several young performers who will hopefully be gracing the stages for years to come. And this short run at the Bridewell also helps draw attention to a delightful musical that has much to offer for family audiences, and will hopefully gain further revivals in the future.