Liam Steel is a small man, but he has a towering reputation.
He’s worked with some of the world’s best regarded theatre companies and with some of the world’s biggest movie stars - and this Christmas audiences will have the opportunity to see his work first hand at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Responsible for staging the epic musical scenes in the Oscar-winning movie version of Les Miserables, he is also the man who brought Ben Hur into stadiums across the UK and Europe. He’s worked with Cirque du Soleil and was involved in the Olympics ceremonies. I know all of this because of his CV, but it would have become immediately clear when Steel gave me a backstage tour of the latest production he is bringing to the stage. The Jungle Book is clearly being made for the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse by someone who understands scale and understands that the Quarry Theatre, the vast main stage at the Leeds theatre, needs to look epic.
Steel’s version of The Jungle Book is going to look epic. “It’s such a great stage to work on,” he says of a venue which has defeated many directors over the years. “The scope to make something that looks huge and brilliant is really exciting.” One of the secrets the stage will hold for audiences is a recreation of a jungle that “will look like it stretches to infinity”. Steel coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been a long time coming. Audiences saw some of his design work when highly respected physical theatre company DV8 came to the theatre early last decade. Since then the stars haven’t quite aligned. “I knew James (Brining, the Playhouse’s artistic director) so he asked me to come in for a meeting. He asked me what I might be interested in working on at the theatre, and I told him that I would be really interested in doing a big Christmas show. I had a few ideas and he wondered if I’d thought about The Jungle Book. The truth was, I hadn’t - I was actually thinking about Beauty and the Beast. I was going to New York to do some work out there and had both books with me. By the time I landed I had read them both and The Jungle Book just really did it for me.” He’d found an enthusiasm for the project and realised it was definitely the story he wanted to tell. “There is so little work out there that is actually something the whole family can genuinely enjoy. Parents begrudgingly get dragged along by their children to Christmas shows, but I thought this was an oppportunity to do something that would actually genuinely appeal to the whole family.” If, by the way, you’re thinking about Disney’s version of the classic Rudyard Kipling story, you’re best off leaving those preconceptions at the door when you go see this show. Steel has found something else with his version of The Jungle Book which, apart from anything else, has something to say to audiences in Britain in 2013. “It’s a story that really relates to now. The themes are so relevant. It’s about a little boy being brought up somewhere that looks multicultural, somewhere like Leeds, where young people are completely comfortable with different cultures and religions being a part of their lives. That’s what this story is about - it’s about a young boy who is trying to make sense of the world and trying to understand where it all fits.” Born and raised in Grimsby, it is a homecoming of sorts for Steel. He has assembled a seriously impressive cast of performers to tell the story within the epic set and space - and the word performers is right, there are huge demands being placed on the likes of Shobna Gulati and the others who make up the cast that will bring The Jungle Book to life. “It’s not a physical theatre piece exactly, but there is a lot of physicality in it,” says Steel. “When you have people playing animals, the important thing is to get them to embody the animals.”
To this end the cast parade around on ‘kangaroo stilts’, the likes of which people might have seen used by paralympians. Kangaroo stilts, an infinite jungle and one of the world’s best directors? It’s going to be epic.
The Jungle Book, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to Jan 18. Tickets £12 - £30, family tickets £14 - £27. 0113 2137700, www.wyp.org.uk