The Lion King

October 24, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More

★★★★☆   Simply spectacular

Edinburgh Playhouse Run ends Saturday 18 January 2014

A thunderous spectacle of live theatre, the Lion King sweeps out from the stage into the audience, drawing them into the anthropomorphised world of Simba, the lion prince who returns from self-imposed exile to claim his kingdom.

Circle of Life – Photo of London Production by Catherine Ashmore

The audience engagement is to such an extent that the Playhouse has been reconfigured so that elephants and other assorted pachyderms can lumber down the aisle and straight onto the stage.

There’s no escaping the fact that you are in a live theatre, not sitting at home watching a DVD.

Hyenas, the wicked henchmen of the piece, cavort down through the audience, thrusting their twisted caricature faces up close to unsuspecting children. And overhead, from above the aisles and suspended over the edges of the circle and upper circle, colourful birds swoop and swirl.

It needs to do this, to reinforce the fact that live theatre is not the same as a pre-recorded film. Because this is a Disney production that is as slick as if it were pre-recorded. It has no space for the kind of minor slip-up that would remind you that you are in a live show.

The spectacle also makes up for the fact that what provides an exciting, edge-of-the-seat sequence in the film – the chases, the fights and the falling towards certain doom – is going to have less impact on the stage.

The choreography does a fine job in telling the story and goes a lot of the way towards evoking chases and fights, but it can’t ever go as far as a cartoon.

The hide-behind-the-sofa moments

As for certain doom, while there is no problem with visible wires when they are pulling the famous slatted sun of the opening sequence up into the sky, they are not as acceptable when uncle Scar – the true villain of the piece – appears on Pride Rock. Attached to his back, they signal his impending demise in a manner which is more certain than wearing a red top in an opening sequence of Star Trek.

Rafiki – Photo of London Production by Catherine Ashmore

There is no such problem with the hide-behind-the-sofa moments. When those hyenas attack the young Simba and his best friend Nala in the elephant graveyard, they lions are in real peril. And the big set-piece frightener when the wildebeest stampede, is superbly achieved.

Instead of the cartoon realism of the film, what this behemoth of a mind-blowing production does, is play with the imagination.

Much has been made of the number of puppets and masks used in the production. And it is true, the use of puppetry and masks is not mind-blowing because of what it does: many of the techniques on display have been seen elsewhere on Edinburgh’s stages over the last year, thanks to the likes of Imaginate, the festival of theatre for children, and the Edinburgh fringe.

What is mind-blowing is the scale of it all. The using of so many different techniques in one production: hand, body, shadow and rod puppets, bunraku and mechanicals are all used and used again in different combinations with masks and costumes.

Then there is the range of different species depicted and their differences in size, in grace and in beauty. Coupled with the sheer number of different animals on stage.

The first half is all spectacle and – even better – spectacle which drives the  story on relentlessly. It sets out from the iconic showing of the baby lion Simba to the assembled animals of the plains, when he is held aloft by the baboon Rafiki.

Then, through his adolescence, defying his father Mufasa, playing with Nala, mocking the hornbill Zazu, fighting with hyenas through the great stampede of the wildebeest it carries on and doesn’t let up until his flight into the jungle where meets up with Timon the meercat and Pumbaa the warthog.

Thanks to great physicality from the performers and the hugely inventive puppet design, the characters are given excellent depth. Cleveland Cathnott is a regal Mufasa, Simba’s father tussling with his morally weak younger brother Scar (Stephen Carlile).

Meilyr Sion is a supercilious Zazu, the hornbill major-domo to the Kings of the Prideland who appears, at least most of the time, to be Scottish. Much, to the Edinburgh audience’s delight, it must be said. Even the hyenas – Daniel Norford, Me’sha Bryan and Philip Oakland – have a certain anarchic depravity to them in their skulking support of Scar.

An old-fashioned bit of stand and delivery

If the first half is driven and vibrant, with the songs based on African chants and rhythms integral to the action, the second half suffers from having to accommodate the burgeoning romance between the near mature Simba and Nala.

Challenge. Photo of London Production by Catherine Ashmor

It’s as if someone in charge had lost faith in the whole concept of integrating music, words, dance and visuals – and decided that it needed an old-fashioned bit of stand and delivery. Suddenly, the songs don’t drive the action on any more, but stop it dead in its tracks.

And as it stops so that Ava Brennan as the mature Nala and Nicholas Nkuna as the mature Simba can deliver songs about their love for each other, the production’s great humanist, ecological message about the circle of life just stops going round.

It isn’t as if the production doesn’t know about pace, either. There is always room to slow a show down and grow a bit of magic out of the gloaming. So, it is also in the second half that the production’s greatest spectacle lies.

The moments when Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki the baboon shows Simba the image of his father in a pool, under wavering jungle plants and the shimmering night sky is stunning. The appearance of Mufasa’s ghosty image is majestic and slow and believable and utterly magical.

A show which is payback for parents who have had to sit through countless re-watches of the DVD. A show which has its own spectacular story to tell. And one which will have youngsters in awe.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3AA
Run ends Saturday, 18 January 2014
Daily Tue-Sun: 7.30pm; matinees Wed, Sat, Sun  2.30pm.
Details on www.atgtickets.com

The OCR of the musical and the original Lion King movie on DVD are available at Amazon:
 

ENDS

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