Saturday, November 26

Disney’s The Lion King – Palace Theatre

There was a palpable sense of excitement in Manchester last night as the crowds made their way down Oxford Road to watch ‘The Lion King’ start its mammoth run at the venerable old Palace Theatre. Some in the audience have been waiting over two years, the original booking falling victim to the pandemic back in 2020, indeed such was the demand for tickets (over 200,000 sold for the initial weeks of performance), that the run has been further extended to the middle of March next year.

I saw this production on its last visit to Manchester in 2012 and will admit to being slightly underwhelmed on that occasion, so I was interested to see if this time round it would live up to the hype. Should you be spending your hard earned money in the company of Simba and Pumba in the Pride Lands, rather than with Captain Hook down the road at the Opera House this Christmas? The answer is a resounding ‘YES’!

From the moment Rafiki (Thandazile Soni) enters, lit by a huge orange sun behind, and the Zulu chant ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba, Sithi uhm ingonyama’ (Circle of Life) rings out , we are in the presence of a sublime piece of theatre that is truly deserving of the word spectacular. As befitting a production which has run on Broadway for 25 years and clocked up over 7,500 performances in the West End, this is a show which knows how to make you laugh and cry in equal measure, but what will please Manchester audiences is that none of the scale and grandeur of the show has been lost with this touring production.

I won’t squander too much of my word count explaining the plot, which closely follows the 1994 Disney movie and follows the adventures of a young lion prince, Simba (Stephenson Ardern Sodje), who must overcome his doubts and fears to take his rightful place as King. The film is merely the stepping off point for this theatrical experience, which allows full reign to the imagination of the creative team to construct a natural world of wonder that manages to be both detailed and impressionistic in its execution. Director Julie Taymor has crafted a production that draws the audience into the Pride Lands with invention and humour, adding small details which make for a convincing whole abound throughout. The scenic design of Richard Hudson creates everything from the vast empty savannah, an elephant graveyard and a Wildebeest stampede, with veracity. The grand back lighting by Donald Holder in the set pieces invokes the majesty required, yet he finds enough nuance to realistically show a tiny mouse scuttle across the vast stage. It would take an entirely separate review to adequately describe the magnificence of the costuming, colour simply floods the stage and when matched with the beautiful Mask Design of Michael Curry, makes for an astonishingly immersive experience. Curry also pioneered the puppetry which, though ubiquitous in theatre nowadays, was groundbreaking and still has the capacity to wow audiences today.

Credit: Johan Persson

Within the imaginary wild playground established by the design team, Choreographer Garth Fagan has woven sublime movement pieces that encapsulate the animals they portray to perfection. Taking inspiration from hours of wildlife footage, we see the result in the sinuous movements of the lion pride, the jerky alertness of Timon (Alan McHale) and the prancing Pumba (Carl Sanderson), but it is in the large ensemble we see the craft at its zenith, allying African tribal dance with Japanese Kabuki influences to produce stylised set pieces that are breathtaking to behold. The scale of the production, with an ensemble of approximately 20 in addition to principal performers, adds scale and grandeur especially during the entrances through the theatre auditorium.

In less capable hands, the lead actors could have been swamped by the spectacle, but the dramatic scenes are well developed with Richard Hurst giving an excellent turn as the villainous Scar balanced against Mufasa’s (Jean-Luc Guizonne) nobility. A large number of the non-musical and movement scenes are comedic in nature and Soni, McHale and Sanderson make full use of these in their respective roles. However, the evenings chief comedy value is to be found in Zazu (Matthew Forbes) as the King’s adviser, to the audience’s delight he often broke the fourth wall to engage in suitably pantomime style which will undoubtedly develop as the run progresses.

‘The Lion King’ is such a visual spectacle that it transcends the need for language or even the necessity of following the basic storyline, both telling reasons why it is such an international success and continues to capture the imagination of audiences. But fear not, the musical numbers that we all will recognise are present and correct, with the infectious ‘Hakuna Matata’ bringing the first act to a rousing conclusion. With musical additions, the show is gratifyingly lengthened during the second act, and we get more detail of the background of Scar and Nala (Nokwanda Khuzwayo) during one of the new songs (The Madness of King Scar), giving the characters more depth than the screen original.

‘The Lion King’ is the perfect family show, spellbinding for children, awe inspiring for adults and a guarantee of a great night in the theatre through the festive season and beyond.

Verdict: The easiest five star rating I will award this year. A roaring success.

Disney’s The Lion King plays at the Palace Theatre until 11 March 2023 with best availability in February and March due to a recent 3-week extension, alternatively check online daily for returns.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 1st November 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★