PPP: Lion Lion

Apr 17 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆  Troubled

Traverse: Tue 16 – Sat 20 April 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

Joy Adamson and the lion Elsa, immortalised in the film Born Free, where the figureheads of African wildlife conservation in the 1960s, changing public opinion towards big cats as animals to be nurtured rather than shot.

In Lion Lion, Sue Glover looks behind the media image which influenced and inspired a generation of wildlife lovers. And under Mary McCluskey’s pointed direction, it certainly feels that elements of truth are revealed, albeit through a distinctly 21st century lens.

Selina Boyack. Pic: Leslie Black

McCluskey has at her disposal a trio of superb performers in Selina Boyack as Joy, Keith Fleming as her husband George and Nick Ikunda as Makedde, one of the African servants who lived with the Adamsons in their camps out in the then Kenyan – now Rhodesian – wildlife reserves.

Boyack’s Joy is a troubled women, first observed returning to Kenya after the publication of her book to discover that her beloved Elsa has died. Immediately turning on George and showing a parental love for the lions in her care that goes a long way beyond the kind of dispassion needed for purely scientific approach.

George is equally self obsessed, although more reasonable and less of a racist – if only for pragmatic reasons – in his attitude to native Kenyans. Fleming has an easy sense of the character, sunk into the beauty of Kenya but also harbouring a dangerous attitude to the lions he was supposed to be reintroducing to the wild, which he also treated as something close to equals.

Ikunda is fascinating to watch as Makedde, who is the most delicately poised character in the production. With little in the way of lines, he succeeds in portraying the complexities of the relationship between the Adamsons and a man who they certainly regard as not just their inferior, but an inferior being.


The production trembles under Andy Cowan’s sound design. The growls and yawlings of lions replace the syrupy-smooth easy listening of Matt Munro’s Born Free and the pin-up pics of Elsa, Joy and George wandering through the bush. There is a tension here, between the Adamsons’ idealised image of their lions and reality.

Nick Ikunda and Keith Fleming. Pic: Leslie Black

As a whole, this feels closer to the truth about Joy Adamson than either the film or her autobiography, as Glover reveals the drinking, the botched abortion when Joy was young that probably meant she could never carry a child to term and her living apart from George. Yet, due no doubt to time demands, much is still left out and the extent of these revelations feels under-explored.

If it is not always clear what Glover is attempting to say here, if anything, about the Adamsons and their legacy. What she does do, however, is portray a strong woman who was the equal of the men around her – living in a time when European attitudes to Africa and its people was rather different.

An interesting production which is perfect for its lunchtime slot, but which skates across surfaces that would take much greater inspection.

Running time 55 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 April 2019
Daily at 1pm; Also Fri eve at 7pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Nick Ikunda and Selina Boyack. Pic: Leslie Black


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