Welsh actor Dyfrig Morris talks to Frankly My Dear UK about taking on the iconic role of Baloo in THE JUNGLE BOOK
Mention THE JUNGLE BOOK and most people think of Disney. Mention Baloo and most people think of BEAR NECESSITIES. So when A Children’s Touring Partnership and Royal & Derngate Northampton decided to collaborate on a new stage production of Rudyard Kipling’s family classic, it’s fair to say they had a challenge on their hands. Thankfully, they succeeded.
Based on Kipling’s 1894 novel, THE JUNGLE BOOK tells the coming-of-age story of Mowgli, a man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle. With the help of his animal friends, including Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear and Kaa the python, Mowgli outwits the cruel and powerful tiger Shere Khan and learns the law of the jungle.
Taking on the iconic role of Baloo is Dyfrig Morris, a Welsh stage and television actor best known for playing William Morris in the 2009 BBC2 series DESPERATE ROMANTICS. Morris plays the fun-loving, easy going, laidback sloth bear who, along with Bagheera, helps Mowgli find his way in the Jungle. Yet despite our preconceptions about the character, Morris still feels he’s been able to make the character his own.
“When I appear and start speaking in a broad Bridgend accent, you set out your stall pretty soon that it’s not the Baloo you’re expecting” explains Morris, in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK.
“It hasn’t done any harm by the fact that there have been two other Baloos fairly recently. Sure, pretty much every child has seen the cartoon but quite a lot of them will also have seen Bill Murray’s Baloo too”.
“Actually, it’s the adults. They are the ones with pre-conceptions, not the kids. In Liverpool or Richmond, when I went to sing for the first time, somebody started singing BEAR NECESSITIES [laughs]. My first song is not out of the universe of the BEAR NECESSITIES but it’s new. It feels comfortable and I think that was intentional.”
Morris admits the real challenge for him as Baloo has been finding the adult journey in what essentially is a children’s story.
“Trying to find the adult journey in the characters has been an interesting one. I’ve certainly found it interesting” admits Morris.
“Our Director and Associate Director has been pushing for me to be a big kid as Baloo but also an irresponsible adult. If Mowgli learns to stand up for himself, be a strong person and accept his differences, we’ve got to go on a journey as well. I’ve been trying to find and pick out grown-up moments, like taking responsibility, sharing, learning to let go and understanding you can’t have everything your own way all the time.”
Another challenge with the production has been learning to deal with the number of script changes. Since the first show at Royal & Derngate Northampton in November 2017, THE JUNGLE BOOK has changed extensively, with new songs and new material added at almost every venue.
“The show has gone through loads and loads of phases and script changes” explains Morris.
“Because it’s brand new, quite a big chunk of the script that is on stage now is not what we started with. Up until Chichester, it was constantly evolving. We had a week’s re-rehearsal in Chichester and added loads of new bits in, new songs and a whole finale which we didn’t have before. For all those changes and tribulations, it means that we’re now, something like 80 shows in, and it still feels like a relatively new show which is amazing.”
Morris also explains that the show also wasn’t intended to be a musical but a play with just four songs. However, by the end of rehearsals, the production had 12 musical numbers, a decision Morris feels is integral to the show’s success.
“Mowgli’s songs, in particular, Kez’s solo, is one of the best songs in the show. It moves the story on in an entertaining way and I think Joe’s [Stilgoe] lyrics tend to do that. They can be self-reflective but move the story along. There is a narrative drive to all the songs. In rehearsals, if it wasn’t doing anything for the story, it was cut.”
In this adaption, THE JUNGLE BOOK has been given a 21st-century spin by Jessica Swale. Focusing on diversity, Kipling’s much criticised racist overtones are long forgotten in this production and ideas of family and community are delivered in true “modern-day family” style. Here, man-cub Mowgli is played by a young woman (Keziah Joseph) and raised by a panther, a bear and two wolves. When Mowgli wrestles with his identity, he also learns, with a helpful nudge from Deborah Oyelade’s fiercely feminist Bagheera, that there are no rules when it comes to belonging.
“It’s about finding your place” explains Morris. “Jessica has really picked up on finding your place in a diverse crowd is a good and legitimate thing to do.”
“It’s interesting because some of the things that feel quite ‘on the nose’, apparently aren’t. They go down really well. We have a line that we added last week which says there is nothing wrong with having two dads or two mums, or two wolves and a bear. Later that day, I got a note and a painting from a little boy called Alfie who has two dads.”
It’s certainly clear that the audience – and the critics – love the show. Since its opening last year, the show has gained glowing reviews from the press (including five stars from us) and great reactions from the audience.
“We’ve had a load of really good reactions. We’ve heard people singing the songs as they leave, we’ve had a few bunches of letters from schools and they love it.”
As Baloo, Morris also has more creative licence that the other characters in the show, which allows him to break the fourth wall and interact with the audience.
“I can see most of the audience most of the time. It’s not that dark and I’ve slightly got license to break fourth wall. In Northampton, when I sing the song at the start of the second half and I’m like “ah, I’m so thirsty, don’t offer me”, I looked down and there was a little boy with Downs Syndrome stood offering me his water bottle. I nearly died. I made sure right at the end I jumped off the stage and said hello. So yeah, we can see quite a lot. You do get instant reactions.”
So what does Morris hope the audience will take away from the show?
“If you’re respectful, if you’re not selfish, if you’re not rude, be who you want to be. It’s pretty much that simple. Being yourself is pretty cool.”
We certainly agree with that.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is on tour nationally and visits Salford’s The Lowry from 2 – 6 May 2018.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.