Tag Archives: Disney

Magic with Knobs On


The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021

Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…)  From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands.  The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures….  Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course.  Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal.  An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny.  Pilkington is excellent throughout.

Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props.  The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny.  Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on.  Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.

Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them.  Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations.  On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act.  An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down!   Hill also gives the story a different ending.  I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.

The underwater scene is there, tick box.  Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island.  And the bed is a marvel.  There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).

A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday.  Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry.  O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him.  Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance.  Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.

It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes.   It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!


Giving it some stick: Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price. Photo Credit: Johan Persson/

Top Cat


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 4th July, 2013

I love Disney – if you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my Mickey Mouse tattoo – but for some reason unknown to me, I have stayed away from the stage adaptation of one of the Magic Kingdom’s most successful animated features.  Until now.  Now the show is touring the country and has set up shop only a few miles from my house, I finally got to see it.

How do you translate animation to the stage?  How do you show the beautifully painted landscapes that enrich the film and give such a sense of place?

Director Julie Taymor answers those questions with puppetry and costume.  It really is the most inventive production design I’ve ever seen.  A slatted sun rises upstage while a woman/baboon (the brilliant Gugwana Dlamini) sings to us in soaring Swahili the spine-tingling Circle of Life – to be honest, she could have been singing Shaddup You Face – the song is almost lost in the audience’s astonished delight as a parade of animals progresses down the aisles, congregating on stage at the foot of Pride Rock – the seat of the lions’ power.  The elephant gets the biggest gasp but for me, the giraffes are the most effective, elegantly presented by performers on two sets of stilts.

This is a fantasy world.  The lions are humanoid figures sporting headgear with masks like tribal chiefs and elders.  Other animals are puppets in a variety of methods – the human operators are always visible.  Through choreography, they act out the famous story, with African-esque rhythms and even a hint of the Far East in some of the techniques used.  It is one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen.  And inventive!  Taymor doesn’t stint herself: the stampede of wildebeest is remarkably, breath-takingly clever and there are singing plants to rival Little Shop of Horrors.

Unfortunately, the dialogue lets it down.  Lifted directly from the screenplay, it seems to be the poor relation at this spectacular feast.  Quick fire gags and bug-eyed reactions are perfect for an animated figure.  On stage, in highly stylised costumes, the banter doesn’t come across as well.  Taymor needs to direct her genius towards the script.  The language could do with heightening to match the theatrical splendour of the storytelling.  Ditch the Americanisms (or at least give the English kids American accents so the cadence sounds natural) and dump the pop culture references.  What the hell an allusion to DIY SOS is doing in there, I can’t fathom.  It’s cheap and cynical and makes the comedy seemed forced.  I also couldn’t work out why Zazu the bird was inexplicably Scottish and babbling about IKEA.  The show doesn’t need this.  With a more poetic, timeless script, the show could be perfect.

Along come Timon and Pumbaa – this camp comic duo are the most like their animated counterparts and although they are expertly performed by John Hasler and Mark Roper respectively, it feels like they’ve wandered in from a theme park ride.  They don’t fit with the rest of the production.

When so much creativity and effort has gone into making The Lion King a sublimely theatrical experience, it’s a pity that the flaws in the film (the patchy dialogue and the misplaced pop culture references) have made it onto the stage too.

The music though is wonderful, with the best tunes coming not from Elton John but from Hans Zimmer’s score, including the best number of the lot, Shadowland, performed with passion and verve by Carole Stennett as lioness Nala. It is the music that stirs the blood when Simba finally ascends to his rightful place at the top of Pride Rock.

I left the auditorium exhilarated by this display of production arts and theatrical invention.  With a better script to match the stylised representation of these Shakespearean events, the show might have moved me to tears.