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THE LION KING

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.

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