Disney’s Lion King, Bristol Hippodrome

IT is all very well to let modern technology take over from old fashioned pieces of paper for checking entry to a theatre, but when, as happened for a short while last evening, that technology goes awry, a long queue quickly develops.

The result was a 15-minute delay before this polished and rehearsed-within-an-inch-of-its-life production could get underway – not that the delay bothered many in the predominantly young audience who were  buzzing with anticipation and excitement.

When the lights finally dimmed and Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki (pictured), a magnificently-colourfully costumed and made up Sangoma, South African Healer and Joyful Spirit, appeared on stage ready to act as narrator through the story the scene was set for an evening full of exciting pictures and full-blooded music and movement. As Rafki spoke and sang her introduction, down through the twin isles of the auditorium came a flood of wonderfully created animals, the actors within the puppets and behind the masks transformed into giraffes, elephants, gazelles, lions, and lionesses, until the stage was filled with a dazzling moving display of colour.

Later Julie Taymor and  Michael Curry, who co-designed the masks and puppets, were to add an array of fierce some hyenas and three lovely less realistic but great fun characters, Carl Sanderson’s mauve warthog, Pumba, his comedy partner, Alan McHale’s  world-weary meerkat, Timon, and Matthew Forbes forever near to panicking African Red Billed Hornbill, Zazu.

The authors of this story certainly believed in the idea that children like to be frightened a little. When the wicked Uncle Scar, played by Richard Hurst as a man  you definitely wouldn’t buy a second-hand car from, set out to murder Jean-Luc Guizonne’s wise, almost godlike Lion King, Mufasa, and convince his son Simba that he was to blame, the story becomes very dark.  And when Scar allies himself with the ferocious hyena’s it becomes decidedly scary.

It is at this point when the young Simba, eaten up with guilt, exiles himself, leaving the way clear for the evil Scar to usurp the throne, that we loose the young Simba and Nala, the infant lioness who will later become Simba’s Queen. A group of 12 talented young players alternate these two roles and with each one determined to outdo the others they are roles always played to the hilt.

Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Nokwanda Khuzwayo  moved into the roles of Simba and Nala as they become adults. They developed the characters and heightened the emotion and tension between the two, taking full advantage of the vocal and dance opportunities that came their way, which was just as well with those scene-stealing junior performances still fresh in the minds of the audience.

Above all else, the great strength of this production is the way in which the lighting, staging, sound, costumes, masks and puppets all blend together to make a  presentation as smooth as a soufflé prepared by a three star Michelin chef. Choreographer Garth Fagan, not a man to miss even a small opportunity,  uses every character onstage (including some posing as plants) to create eye-catching routines. And with musical director Jon Aspital and sound  designer Steve Canyon-Kennedy singing off the some hymn sheet, the  Elton John and Tim Rice numbers added to the film’s original score are heard to their best advantage, giving the vocalists an ideal platform to show off their talents.

The visual qualities of this production are so high that they tends to overshadow even the most dramatic contents of the story, Mufasa’s murder and the final personal battle between the hero Simba and evil Scar.  Whatever your opinions about the balance between, drama, comedy and spectacle, there is no arguing  that this is a production that you cannot take your eyes off for  a  moment for fear of missing yet another thrilling picture.


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