Following 15 years at London’s Lyceum Theatre The Lion King is currently doing its first ever tour of the UK, with the first stop being Southampton’s very own Mayflower Theatre. Disney’s award winning musical, brought to life for the stage by Julie Taymor, has now been seen by over 70 million people worldwide and cannot only be seen here in the UK, but in five other countries around the globe.
The Mayflower Theatre set the perfect backdrop for the show, so it is no surprise that with it came record-breaking ticket sales. The fairly small venue allowed for an heir of intimacy as the sun rose on the stage and the audience was transported from Southampton to the Serengeti Plain where Simba’s epic journey takes place.
Many will remember the spectacular opening of Disney’s animated film featuring every animal of the Savannah joining together to witness the presentation of Simba accompanied by Elton John’s Circle of Life. This spectacle was not by any means hindered by the limitations of stage production, audience members gasped as all animals (represented by both costumes and clever puppetry) took to the stage to welcome the new cub. Unlike with other musical productions, The Lion King required short adjustment to adapt to the puppetry of animals without the easy representation of an animated film. It was orchestrated beautifully, making it easy for the imagination to take over.
The first act of the show takes us through Simba’s journey towards adulthood, including the moving death of his father Mufasa. With much of the dialogue and songs being lifted directly from Disney’s film, this somehow did not detract from the enjoyment. It proves to be quite possible to find great enjoyment despite knowing the exact outcome which demonstrates the splendour of the costumes, dance and performance as a whole. The stampede chase leading up to Mufasa’s death was executed brilliantly, combining row upon row of wildebeest as backdrop as well as dancers to create the tension of the chase. Mufasa’s death was nothing short of heart-breaking, which gives great credit to the actors of father (Cleveland Cathnott) and son.
What truly made the show a success was the masterful use of puppetry, costumes and particularly the masks; many of which were designed by the show’s director, Julie Taymor. Not only were masks used on the characters throughout, but also in representation of the dead Mufasa. With the song He Lives in You, cast members formed a giant lion head from separate pieces that filled the backdrop of the stage. The show seamlessly combined puppetry and live action with some scenes, the most obvious being the fight scene between hyenas and lions, flitting between the two as a showcase of both the actors’ talent and the artists’.
The finale of the show, following the dramatic death of the show’s spineless villain, Scar (Christopher Colquhoun), brought the audience full circle with the Circle of Life, echoing the beginning of the production. Performed with the same precision as the opening, the finale was a great end to the show that cannot be described as anything but spectacular, bringing all of the animals of the Savannah together once more.
Something The Lion King stage production has that the film does not is the inclusion of traditional traits of the film’s African setting. It is Rafiki, the wise baboon (Thulisile Thusi), who truly sets the scene of the Serengeti from the opening of the production with her use of language which is continued throughout with dance and costume. This is definitely something that is missing from Disney’s animated film, and was a great addition to the show.
The only criticism that could be passed was that some of the humour bordered on pantomime comedy which proved a little awkward at times. However, some of the jokes fondly remembered from the 1994 film were topically updated which made the show more relevant to its audience; and example being the swapping of Zazu’s rendition of Merv Griffin’s I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts with The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) much to some peoples’ dismay! That aside, the use of comedy throughout the production to break the tension of more serious matters made the show absolutely perfect for all ages.
Although The Lion King’s time at the Mayflower Theatre has now sadly come to an end, it is of course continuing its run at London’s Lyceum Theatre, as well as continuing its UK tour in Sunderland, Cardiff and Manchester.
9/10-The Lion King is nothing short of a spectacular transformation of Disney’s childhood favourite, with stunning music lead by Jonathan Gill, and amazing artistry of costumes and puppetry throughout. A perfect musical to be enjoyed by all generations and a credit to the Mayflower Theatre!