Stiles+Drewe occupy a funny place for me: a musical writing pair, I’ve several of their soundtracks in my collection as well as their West End concert and I’ve been to a charity gig they hosted this year but I have never actually seen a show they have written. Fortunately, the Tabard Theatre took it upon themselves to rectify this by putting on a production of Just So.
Written in the mid 1980s by George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics), this is actually the professional London premiere of this show after a successful 2006 revival in Chichester which featured Julie Atherton. Director Andrew Keates has aimed big with this production, the biggest ever at the Tabard, which celebrates both the 25th anniversary of the show and the Tabard itself.
Just So pulls together five of Rudyard Kipling’s famous stories into one epic journey through the jungle as the Elephant’s Child and the Kolokolo Bird, guided by the wise Eldest Magician, travel together to stop the evil crab Pau Amma from flooding everything and on the way meet all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures as they learn to face their fears, be truly courageous and the real value of friendship. With a live band and a cast of eleven, the story is brought vividly to life on the stage of the Tabard in what makes for a most entertaining family musical.
At the heart of the story is the inquisitive Elephant Child, played with wide-eyed and fresh-faced innocence by Lee Greenaway and his journey with the more worldly-wise and -weary Kolokolo Bird, portrayed with a delicious sardonic Scottishness by Lisa Baird. They are brilliant together and the way in which their companionship develops is lovely, the moment when he finally takes her hand is beautifully observed. Yet they also show the difficulties of maintaining friendships, allowing for the two musical highlights to come in the second act, the rueful ‘Does The Moment Ever Come?’ is sung well by Greenaway but my favourite is the gorgeous ‘Wait A Bit’, where the Kolokolo Bird admonishes herself for not fulfilling her potential and learn to fly: it is a genuinely touching song and delivered with real style and passion by Baird.
But what is also lovely about the show is that it really allows its supporting characters the room to develop and flourish as they gain the characteristics that make them unique creatures. So true to Kipling’s storytelling, we learn how the leopard got its spots, why the rhino’s skin is wrinkled and how the elephant got its trunk. The ensemble was strong across the board, but I did particularly enjoy Stuart Douglas-James’ Rhino and Lewis Barnshaw’s singing stove. And Ian Knauer’s guiding influence as the Eldest Magician is carried with a strong vocal performance.
Magnus Gilljam’s musical direction is nicely energetic, capturing the lightheartedness of many of the songs as well as the beautiful balladry, Christopher Hone’s set design uses the space of the Tabard well and Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s choreography is equally well-suited, filling the stage to great effect. And any show that introduces a tap dance number, especially when delivered by a zebra and a giraffe, has to be a winner!
So much of the pleasure of seeing Just So for me was finally seeing a show, the soundtrack of which I know so well, for the first time and it matching up to my expectation. This really has been the year of the fringe musical: great programming, high quality cast and creatives and the intimacy of seeing things up close have won me over considerably more than most of the over-hyped juggernauts in the West End. And with this particular musical, the Tabard have a witty, intelligent family-friendly success that will put smiles on the faces of everyone who goes, no matter their age.