There are perhaps few Disney films as beloved as The Lion King. One need only look at the rabid success of the (less than stellar) remake for further evidence of this. It’s a powerhouse of a musical that resonates with people of all ages. Naturally, bringing the animated story to life onstage is no easy feat, but when done well it can be a truly stupendous piece of theatre; there is, after all, a reason the West-End production has been running for 20 years. The question then becomes whether the same level of production can be pulled off in a touring show? The answer, in short, is yes.
From the moment the conductor strikes up the orchestra, and Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki takes to the stage to begin the iconic opening refrain of ‘Circle of Life’, audience members are immediately transported to the African savanna. With that, they quickly become mesmerised by the music, dancing, costume-design and puppetry – oh, the puppetry!
There is an incredible sense of grandeur and scale that permeates throughout the Edinburgh Playhouse, as elephants, herds of antelopes, and rhinoceroses make their way through the stalls to the stage. You may have heard about the puppets used for The Lion King, but nothing compares to seeing them in person. The level of intricacy is truly astounding, and the skill with which they are manoeuvred by the cast is wonderful. It’s a truly breathtaking spectacle that continues throughout the performance, especially when mixed with incredible choreography.
Moreover, one cannot help but marvel at every area of the production. From the set design used to construct Pride Rock and the Elephant Graveyard, to the shadow-puppetry used to convey the Wildebeest stampede, and even to something as simple as the graceful movements of the dancers to depict grassland. It all coalesces to create something it is truly a delight.
That said, there are some issues. Despite a generally strong level of production for the puppets, there is a strange contrast between certain puppets that is somewhat jarring. Many of the puppets have a beautiful artistry to them that extends to the actors operating them. Despite being a hand-held bird puppet operated and played wonderfully by Matthew Forbes, Zazu never feels out of place thanks to the actor’s costume. It feels like a continuation of the puppet’s own aesthetic, and as such, the two blend seamlessly together.
By contrast, Timon – a full-size walking puppet attached to Steve Beirnaert – feels overtly comical. It’s a decision which will surely please the children in the audience, but it also feels deeply out of place next to the simplistic yet effective design of Pumbaa. Worse perhaps is the decision to paint and dress Beirnaert entirely in bright green, leading to him standing out like a sore thumb and ultimately distracts from the rest of the performance. This is but a small complaint compared with the rest of the production however, as there is so much to behold and enjoy.
The cast do a stellar job of carving out niches for themselves in roles which are often hard to separate from the original performances. In particular, Dashaun Young and Josslynn Hlenti give fantastic turns as the adult Simba and Nala, and Carl Sanderson delivers an almost perfect recreation of Ernie Sabella’s original, iconic performance as Pumbaa in the film. There are some minor missteps; while Jean-Luc Guizonne’s excellently captures the balance of strength and compassion key to Mufasa’s character, his lean towards stoicism means that he occasionally comes across as a bit wooden. Similarly, although Richard Hurst gives a strong and suitably campy portrayal of Scar, his voice often feels drowned out, especially during ‘Be Prepared’. It’s a shame as there is much to be gleaned from the rest of his performance.
Ultimately, any complaint is a minor one as there is so much to love in this production of The Lion King. The strength of every level of production, coupled with an excellent cast, mean that this is a delight for all to behold from start to finish, be they young or old.