Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Visually arresting, the touring production of The Lion King which is booked into the Playhouse until March 2020, wants for nothing in terms of spectacle or budget.
The stage version of the Disney cartoon sees the original Hamlet-esque storyline of Simba – a lion prince whose father is murdered by his uncle – present and correct. There are also points of departure; the familiar Tim Rice/Elton John songs are accompanied by additional numbers, while the staging is the main attraction in a musical that has in many ways outstripped the success of both the original (and its strangely unnecessary CGI remake) to become a cultural behemoth in its own right.
What has to be stressed at the outset is that this is a stunning theatrical experience in many ways. Director Julie Taymor has fashioned a visually enticing display, that derives much of its impact from her costumes and puppets, the latter co-designed by Michael Curry.
The various animals are wonderfully brought to life by a huge, and hugely talented, ensemble that is a riot of colour and sound. The manipulation of the puppets is remarkable, with many different traditions represented, including some elegant shadow puppetry.
While there is nothing to complain about in the ambition or scale of a production that has left nothing behind in the West End and makes tremendous use of the auditorium, there is definitely something missing.
There is a corporate sheen to this that is undoubtedly impressive, but it comes at the expense of emotional force in a show that ends up oddly soulless. Perhaps it is just because few shows could live up to the hype this one brings with it.
The involvement of so many performers of African birth or heritage (particularly in that fantastic ensemble), not to mention the use of African languages or Lebo M’s hand in the additional music, allays any fears of phoney exoticism or cultural tourism.
There is, however, a rather dated feel to some of it. This is partly down to the cheery anthropomorphism seeming old-fashioned, which is linked to some of the now-pressing environmental issues that are raised but skated over.
Attempts are made to update the dialogue, but this is mostly done through the figure of the bird Zazu. Matthew Forbes’ portrayal is clever and endearing, but the asides come across as very close to pantomime. This does not quite fit in with the rest of the production, with the possible exception of Richard Hurst’s compelling but somewhat over-ripe characterisation as the baddie Scar.
The central story of Simba is split into two parts, with the young version (infectiously played by Theo Somolu) in the first half and the older lion after the interval. Dashaun Young brings tunefulness and sincerity to the role. However, like the similarly talented Josslynn Hilenti as his betrothed Nala, he suffers from the lack of genuine feeling in the storyline. Stella Harris gives the younger Nala considerable bite.
Stage presence is in plentiful enough supply, with Thandazile Soni’s narrator figure Rafiki dominating proceedings whenever she appears, apparently through sheer force of will. There is a stateliness to Jean-Luc Guizonne’s Mufasa, but the most striking characterisations are the comic ones.
CarlSanderson’s flatulent warthog Pumbaa is suitably broad, while Steve Beirnaert’s meerkat Timon is wonderfully wry, and features some particularly effective puppeteering.
Despite any concerns about the lack of resonance or profundity, there can be no denying that this is a technically impressive production whose continuing success is easy to explain.
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Thursday 5 December 2019– Sunday 29 March 2020
Evenings Tue – Sat: 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed, Sat, Sun: 2.30pm
Tickets and details: Book here.
Josslynn Hlenti (Nala), Dashaun Young (Simba) and the company. Pic: Disney