Review: The Lion King

Disney’s celebrated classic lights up the Palace Theatre, Manchester, kick-starting a huge 19-week run

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There aren’t many surprises hiding in Disney’s live adaptation of The Lion King but maybe that’s why it works so well. Oftentimes, the main problem with screen-to-stage transformations of much-loved movies is their predictability. When it comes to deviating from the beloved original text – something the majority of crowds know so well they can practically recite dialogue verbatim – they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Change too much and it feels like you’re being sold something you didn’t want. Make no changes at all and the production feels lacking.

Disney might be the exception to the rule. There’s something about these classic animated movies that has embedded itself into the collective psyche of an entire generation of ’90’s kids that grew up watching them on repeat. Now adult, the studio’s second era of Golden Age classics – films like 1989’s The Little Mermaid, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, 1992’s Aladdin and 1994’s The Lion King – have become akin to visual comfort blankets, helping them escape the frequent chaos of maturity and return to a time of calm, responsibility-free stability. It’s a trend that’s continuing with younger generations too and together, this combined demographic fills the bulk of seats at Manchester’s ornate Palace Theatre tonight.

We’re sat in the stalls up-front, watching as this Northern stage is transformed into a new African dawn, full of pale blues, warm oranges and vivid yellows thanks to the stellar work of the production’s lighting team. Soon, an array of animals make their way onto the stage, deftly puppeteered by actors so good at their job, they’re barely noticeable. Before we know it, they’re among us; swooping, galloping and plodding down the aisles as elephants, antelope and hornbills make their way to the Pride Lands to see the unveiling of King Mufasa’s cub son, Simba. Meanwhile, musicians in the orchestra pit and hiding in spaces up above the stage bring the story’s Circle of Life song to a rising crescendo, welcoming us back into a familiar world.

That’s the scene set – and storywise, there’s not much to report here that you likely don’t already know. Loosely resembling Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we watch as a tale of family, responsibility, death and destiny unfolds as the young prince Simba is forced to step into his rightful place as king after his evil uncle Scar murders his father and takes over the Savanna. Meanwhile, memorable songs from Disney’s influential film keep us toe-tapping throughout lavishly-realised musical numbers, with the introduction of freewheeling duo Timon (Alan McHale) and Pumba (Carl Sanderson) injecting some much-needed “Hakuna Matata” levity into what’s essentially quite a dark and murderous story.

Cast-wise, everyone’s on top form. Richard Hurst’s Scar amps up the arch against Jean-Luc Guizonne’s virtuous and stoic Mufasa, while Matthew Forbes’ snarky birdie-butler Zazu delivers some crowd-loving sass. Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki plays with visual humour and Jaydon Eastman’s kid Simba serves up an impressive stage debut. Meanwhile, the show does try to teach this old lion some new tricks, even if its detours (Scar’s desire to find a wife, for example) tend to quickly fizzle out and lead to dead ends.

Still, if you’ve bought tickets for this production’s recently-extended run (you’ll find it at the Palace until March 2023), then you’re likely not coming for plot twists. While sticking so close to the animated original may leave some wondering why they didn’t just rewatch this Disney classic on telly, seeing The Lion King brought to life so evocatively before your eyes does help underline its resonant and universal themes of life, parenthood, loss and responsibility in a tangible way that animation cells just can’t quite manage.

Sat in front of us throughout our performance were two segments of the show’s key demographic: a pair of young children with their parents and a late twenty-something couple. Despite their stark age gap, both remained wide-eyed and wrapt throughout the whole show which, if nothing else, surely underpins the generation-spanning power of seeing the familiar in a new light.

The Lion King is at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday, March 11 2023.

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