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The Lion King at Edinburgh Playhouse

Published by: Cameron Lowe on 23rd Oct 2013 | View all blogs by Cameron Lowe
Review by Cameron Lowe

Words like “awesome” and “phenomenon” are over-used in theatrical reviews but The Lion King at the Edinburgh Playhouse is a production where these words can truly apply. It’s time to reach for the “Bumper Book of Jungle-themed Superlatives” …

 

Anticipation was high among the audience before the curtain rose. Those who had experienced The Lion King in London were busy telling those who had not what to expect. The auditorium was literally buzzing … in part due to the audience chatter and in part due to the atmospheric jungle insect noises being piped in. The lights dimmed and the audience hushed …

 

RafikiSpotlight on Rafiki (perfectly voiced with unstoppable enthusiasm by Gugwana Dlamini). She begins the, now timeless, opening wailing chant heralding what emerges as a glorious dawn while warming lighting transitions give way to a massive sunrise on stage. We can almost feel the heat! The rising orb is accompanied by the ascending harmonies of the chorus and the first creatures appear in the daylight to welcome the birth of the King’s son and heir.

 

Giraffes and cheetah

Seated in the stalls we are suddenly surrounded by a plethora of beautifully crafted African beasts which are expertly animated by the cast as they lumber towards the stage. It is almost as if Noah had parked his arc at the back of the auditorium as elephants are followed by zebras, antelope and all manner of birds. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause in the middle of this opening number – they can’t help themselves. On stage, the gathering creatures are joined by a cheetah and the most elegant giraffes. All the while the chorus is rising to the crescendo of “The Circle of Life” as Rafiki presents the new born cub to the assembled subjects and the proud parents look on … BOOM. Blackout. Over 3000 people in the audience erupt into thundering applause.

This is without doubt the most amazing theatrical opening I have ever experienced – you don’t just watch this show, you are part of it. I was in danger of injuring my neck as I tried to take it all in. All around me, adults were grinning like school kids as they excitedly looked left and right and overhead (the school kids seemed to be taking it all in their stride). The impact is testament to the vision and co-ordination of Director and costume / puppet designer, Julie Taymor. She has merged design and performance imaginatively and seamlessly. The high level of collaboration throughout the production is also evident in the music with contributions from African artist Lebo M, Hans Zimmer, Julie Taymor and others adding to the core music and lyrics from Elton John and Tim Rice. The result is much more than a “show”, it’s an “experience”.

Based on the 1994 Disney animated feature film, the stage show follows the movie storyline closely. Young Simba stands to inherit the Pridelands from his strong and just father, Mufasa (Cleveland Cathnott), but evil uncle, Scar (wickedly portrayed by Stephen Carlile), wants the Kingdom for himself. Scar implements a murderous plot and Simba is forced to leave the Pridelands. Simba takes refuge with comedy duo Timon and Pumbaa (played nicely for laughs by John Hasler and Lee Ormsby) and grows to adulthood (now played athletically by Nicholas Nkuna) with his new found friends. A chance encounter with his childhood sweetheart, Nala (passionately delivered by Ava Brennan) forces Simba to face up to the responsibilities of his birth right by confronting the evil Scar in a battle for the future of the Pridelands.
Challenge

It would be impossible to maintain the ‘wow factor’ of the opening throughout the production and fortunately the show does not merely rest on “The Circle of Life”. With a hit filled score including “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” combined with gradually revealed costume, creature and staging delights, The Lion King continues to impress and entertain throughout. The story has some real depth, too, and just the right mix of tears and laughs to engage the whole family.

Beyond the mind boggling scale and concept there was still room to appreciate the excellent performances. Gugwana Dlamini was, quite simply, Rafiki brought to life for me. Her vocals and character delivered everything I could ask for from the role. I was also captivated by the depth and conviction of Ava Brennan as Nala. With powerful vocals across an incredible range and heartfelt emotion she took her character far beyond the celluloid incarnation.

Ava Brennan as Nala

The Lion King reigns supreme in Edinburgh until 18 January 2014 but beware that tickets in the run up to the festive period will sell quickly and you may be missing your opportunity to see this amazing production TODAY! Did I mention that it is an awesome phenomenon? Don’t miss it.

The Lion King

Edinburgh Playhouse

Until 18 Jan 2014

Tickets £25 - £75

Box Office: 0844 871 3014 (booking fee)

Online Booking: Edinburgh Playhouse

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