Review: The Lion King

Antonia Charlesworth says the Liverpool lioness Ava Brennan is a roaring success in her hometown

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Marking the 20th anniversary of the Disney animation, last week the stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film premiered at the Liverpool Empire Theatre and homegrown talent shone amongst an international cast.

It is hard to believe Disney ever doubted the success of The Lion King on stage but it says it wasn’t an obvious choice for a Broadway musical. It is now 15 years since it was first performed in the West End and the current touring production, which was four years in the making and is the biggest musical ever to tour the UK, is proving more popular than ever – bringing new audiences to the theatre and converting more reluctant musical theatregoers.

Theatre artist Julie Taymor can be given most of the credit. She is the show’s Tony Award-winning director, also responsible for costumes, masks, puppets and additional lyrics – which work seamlessly alongside the original score.

Opening with the Elton John-Tim Rice classic The Circle of Life, the auditorium is instantly transported to the heart of the Pridelands as a gathering of animals, including an anthropomorphised elephant, elegant giraffes and other species brush against the audience on their way to the stage. The cast, led by Jamaican choreographer Garth Fagan, do a slick job of emulating the movements of the animals while the expressionistic and naturalistic African dance gives the show real authenticity. The elaborate backdrop of props is credit to British designer Richard Hudson, who manages to transport the audience from the lush African savannah to the thick of a wildebeest stampede, for example, in a few fluid moves.

The lionesses as an ensemble make for powerful viewing, ferocious and ethereal at once

The story, of course, remains the same – young lion cub Simba, played by a confident Solomon Gordon, has to overcome adversity and loss to claim his title of King of the Pridelands as an adult, depicted by Nicholas Nkuna. Both actors give strong, king-worthy performances but it’s their female counterparts, 10-year-old Donica Elliston and Liverpool actor Ava Brennan, who roar the loudest. Through costume and dance their character Nala encapsulates the grace, strength and fluidity of a Balinese dancer and the bravery of a Maasai warrior. By extension the lionesses as an ensemble make for powerful viewing, ferocious and ethereal at once.

Less effective was Simba’s nemesis and uncle Scar – played by Stephen Carlile. The villain is utterly terrifying in the film, even now, but on stage becomes a bit of a caricature with his overly made-up face and his RP accent, which is more smarmy than sinister, as well as a bit quiet at times.

Providing comic relief in the musical is Zazu, the king’s majordomo. The combination of his costume and puppet present the character in the what the show’s original director has called a “double event”, which is executed well. His Glaswegian shtick gets a few laughs but undermines the majesty of the show, and the children in the audience, of course, don’t get it. They do however get Timone and Pumba, whose double-act adds light relief to the emotional tale, although John Hasler’s faux American accent grates. The hyenas provide a further comic dimension and are funny and terrifying in equal measure. The staging during their scenes in the elephant graveyard and later in the Pridelands is more horror than musical theatre, making it clear that this is much more than a children’s show – although the brave ones in attendance were positively enthralled.

Gugwana Dlamini, playing Rafiki, was the most comic of all the characters, which is credit to the actor, who captures the spirit of both a hyperactive baboon and a spiritual shaman. Her authentic African “click” language peppered within high-pitched English was highly effective and placed her as the heart and soul of the show.

The cast of over 50 actors, hailing from 17 different countries, are at their best in numbers performing the Zulu chants and African chorus devised by celebrated South African composer Lebo M, responsible for bringing Africa to life on stage. The music in The Lion King moves the audience and makes for an emotional viewing experience that isn’t captured in the Disney animation in nearly the same way.

The Lion King is at the Liverpool Empire Theatre until 5 July

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