The Lion King

June 13, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆     A roaring success

Playhouse: Thurs 2 June – Sat 2 July 2022
Review by Suzanne O’Brien

Disney’s The Lion King, at the Edinburgh Playhouse until July 2, is a sensory feast of colour, music and puppetry. Whether you have seen the classic Disney movie numerous times or never before, it is a spectacular musical that does not disappoint.

Beyond the spectacle, the stage musical – like the original movie – explores the trials and tribulations of life, growing up, family relationships and friendships, as well as social expectations and what it means to fulfil your destiny.

Jean-Luc Guizonne (Mufasa). Pic: Disney

The Lion King is brought to life by a large and talented cast directed by Julie Taymor. Within seconds of curtain up the audience are immersed in the life of the Serengeti Plains as the sun rises, while giraffes, elephants and leaping gazelles travel through the stalls while soaring birds fly over the dress circle.

On stage, the growing relationship between young lion cub Simba and his father Mufasa, the King of Pride Rock, plays out – only disturbed by his evil uncle Scar, who is jealous of his brother’s power and wants to take the throne for himself. In his endeavour to become King, Scar cunningly befriends a pack of dim-witted hyenas and uses them to trick Simba into leaving his homeland.

Cordell Munyawiri, playing the demanding role of Simba on press night, is on stage for the majority of the first act. Munyawiri – one of six youngsters alternating in the role – has a charm, grace and naivety about him. The chemistry he shows in Simba’s relationships, whether with his Father – played by the powerful yet endearing Jean-Luc Guizonne – or Richard Hurst’s deliciously evil Scar, is also very believable.

accessible to all

The whole piece is narrated by Raifiki the mandrill, played by an exuberant Thandazile Soni, who provides a sense of atmosphere throughout. It’s not your normal narrative, as much of her appearances don’t include verbal communication and often when they do it is a mix of vocals or African language. It is through Soni’s infectious laugh, exaggerated movements and simple humour that she is able to transcend the language barrier and be accessible to all.

Thandazile Soni (Rafiki). Pic: Brinkoff and Mogenburg

When Simba grows up into a young adult, he is reunited with his childhood friend Nala played by Nokwanda Khuzwayo. Their love soon begins to blossom which is beautifully shown through a stunning vocal performance of Elton John’s Can You Feel The Love Tonight, with emotional lyrics by Tim Rice.

Stephenson Ardern-Sodje brings a radiant charm to the grown-up version of Simba when he returns to Pride Rock to reclaim his homeland from Scar – who’s misrule has brought catastrophe on the Pride.

He does so along with his trusted friends Timon (Alan Mchale) a witty meerkat and Pumbaa (Carl Sanderson), a greedy warthog. The lovable pair bring light and humour to the piece. This nature and playful energy is shown brilliantly through their cheeky jokes, sarcastic comments and performance of one of the most well-known songs of the musical – Hakuna Matata.

dramatic tension

Designer Richard Hudson transports the audience deep into the African world thought multiple sets, which change seamlessly, with moving platforms creating cliffs that give height and use of the whole stage. A wildebeest stampede, is cleverly shown with a flow of small silhouettes of wildebeest running downwards from the back of the stage. It is as if hundreds of them were rushing in from the far distance. As the scene progresses, actors on different levels with ever larger wildebeest heads make it feel as if the herd was edging ever closer.

Nokwanda Khuzwayo as Nala. Pic: Johan Persson

This intimidating picture is not only visually impressive but helps build the dramatic tension. Hudson’s innovative design of the whole show cleverly incorporates everything from the puppets to the cast who, at times, morph into the Savannah itself.

Apparently, there are 232 different puppets in the show designed by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. Which, without counting every single one, is believable: just from the flocks of colourful birds flying overhead and herds of gazelles – neatly fixed onto a wheel so they appear to bound gracefully across the stage.

It is testament to each detailed design and the skilled puppeteering that you quickly become unaware of the poles, wires and operators, as you seem to become surrounded by real wild animals with individual personalities.

grotesque personalities

The hyena puppets work incredibly well with caricature facial features which encapsulate their grotesque personalities. The lines between human puppeteer and puppet are blurred here, with puppet front legs and face, and the puppeteer’s own legs and body in costume.

Stephenson Ardern-Sodje: Johan Persson

Not all the puppets are quite as successful however. Notably, there is a slight dislocation between puppet and actor in the characters of Timon and the hornbill Zazu, played by the talented Matthew Forbes, who serves as royal advisor to the monarchy.

Unlike the hyenas they appear separate from their puppet and the illusion of them being as one is not as clear. The actor’s costume and make up attract the eye away from the puppet itself. Although the actors’ performances mirror the puppets extremely well, they are so engaging and facially expressive that they bring the focus on themselves, rather than the puppets they are operating.

resonates

Modern-day pop references and Scottish geographical references are sprinkled throughout the show. These are funny enough, but they also feel forced and out of place; for a moment you are taken away from the Serengeti and brought back into the Playhouse.

Yet, sitting there in the Playhouse’s packed auditorium, it is easy to understand The Lion King’s broad appeal and continued demand. Here is a musical which resonates with all ages and genders, wherever you are in the world.

Here is a celebration of life, full of hope and optimism which reminds us that our past doesn’t have to determine our future.

Running time: Two hours and 35minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse
18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Phone booking: 0844 871 3014.
Thurs 2 June – Sat 2 July 2022
Evenings Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Weds, Sat, Sun & Fri 1: 2.30pm..
Tickets and details: Book here.

An image from the 2016 Dutch production. Pic: Deen van Meer

ENDS

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  1. Tim says:

    Great review, at times I could imagine being transported into the theatre and witnessing the stampede.it sounds fantastic. Ill definitely go next time it’s in Edinburgh