The Lion King remains one of the most popular shows in the West End, directed by Julie Taymor, book by Irene Mecchi.
As beautiful ambulant puppets flood the aisles of the stalls, parading onto the stage, it is definitely easy to believe oneself transported into the midst of an animal parade in the heart of Africa. Where usually one cannot speak conclusively about the entire audience, I can, at least, claim bravely that this enthralling overture was received just as enthusiastically by the other spectators in the stalls, given their unanimous excitable gasps and turning heads.
There was a problem with this overture, however: spectators in the circles could not benefit from this in the same way. Having only two birds greet them, wielded on sticks by performers below in the stalls, immersion was secondhand for these audience members. This problem has easy solutions: a system of sticks, for instance, which would guide small jumping creatures (monkeys, for example; insects, even) and various birds of prey from the circle down to the stage, permitting a tidy and endearing proximity with the animals for these otherwise ignored members of the audience.
There were many mesmerising visuals in this performance, from starlit night skies to clouds of fireflies — that archetypical Disney magic. Although, there was perhaps a little too much Disney magic…character designs, beside those of the lions, were identical with their corresponding cinematic figures, and this made for a strange mix of recognisable cartoon faces and new humanised characters. To elucidate this, the designs for the Hyenas (Meloné M'kenzy, David Blake and Barnaby Thompson), Zazu (Gary Jordan), Timon (Ben Heathcote) and Pumbaa (Keith Bookman) were unmistakably the cartoon characters, in the flesh. This did not bode well against other main character designs which were essentially just headpieces and trousers, as for the bare-chested lions, for example. The rest of the character designs were not so cartoonistic at all but rather simplistic and natural-looking, simply painted wooden puppets cloaked in cloth. Visually, then, this production was rather hit and miss, despite how undeniably beautiful some designs were.
Many other visuals were simply lacking, too: Mufasa (Shaun Escoffery) falling to his death, accompanied by an extremely visible harness and ropes; the elephant skeleton, more of an embellished staircase; the Hyenas' costumes, two odd fabric-covered sticks for hands and large cartoon faces; and Young Simba (Kai Plummer-Walrond) running from the stampeding wildebeest, which does look splendid after momentum has built and puppets have appeared behind him but initially looks rather pathetic as he runs on the spot for a few minutes in front of a looping backdrop of a poorly drawn stampede.
Amongst all the visual faux pas, one stood out for me: Zazu (Gary Jordan). Every single character, puppet, set piece, etc., even if mere wood, was vibrant and colourful. Zazu’s design, however, was completely dark and lifeless. During the overture, those aforementioned excitable gasps from the stalls came to an immediate halt on his appearance. Spectators surrounding me froze and glared at his shadowy form. Upon asking a few other audience members, who felt the same way as I, it was clear that this odd tension was due to this puppeteer, a white performer amongst black performers, being, essentially, in blackface (makeup by Michael Ward). Having no clear relevance, and standing out like a sore thumb, this character design was rather unnerving…
The majority of puppeteering was very well executed, particularly in the overture, of course, but also in scenelets within transitions, namely those including a cheetah pruning herself before sneaking up upon an alert and cheeky giraffe. However, the way in which certain performers interacted with their puppets or costume pieces was particularly frustrating. Why, for example, does Shaun Escoffery take his headpiece off to talk to Young Simba, towards the beginning of the musical? Rather than a crown, this headpiece represents more the head of Mufasa, and so its removal conjures the image of a beheaded lion. Meta-theatrically speaking, we are now aware that this is a human in a costume, and illusion is destroyed. The same goes for Gary Jordan who, in a clamorous display of meta-theatre, stands without his puppet, claiming to have “lost [his] bird.”
This (recurrent) humanisation was a downfall for this production. Spectators come to be lost in a world inhabited by African animals, not human actors dressed as them. A similar situation is found in the second act which begins with puppet-less performers singing to the audience as a large blue fabric disappears into a cavity, centerstage, symbolic of a drying waterhole. Whilst I found the waterhole image effective, the singing humans were utterly out of place — and typically anthropocentric…
Lastly, I shall comment on acting style. Personally, I was most excited to see the character of Scar (George Asprey) performed on stage — which in no way means that I had preempted a certain characterisation type. Asprey, unfortunately, was a huge disappointment. As agreed on by many other spectators, Asprey was lifeless in his performance, repetitively swinging his tail as a moribund motif, unthreatening, utterly motionless in scenes, and with terribly monotonal vocals often too quiet against the booming accompaniment. As for the Hyenas, their comedic aspect in the films was certainly stressed over the menacing, taking away from that all-too-needed antagonist force. I wanted more from Gugwana Dlamini (playing Rafiki). Her movements were too restrictive and repetitive, and her demeanour was far too inwardly. I wanted her to be even more animated, ebullient, mystical and eccentric. Quirky choices like her swinging onto the stage on a vine should have set the mark for the rest of her performance.
For me, the play's momentum was definitely close to death before the end of Act 1, which is not in any way ideal… The emergence of Timon and Pumbaa, however, was most definitely a pivotal point. Heathcote, Bookman and their puppets definitely re-energised the musical whilst capturing the loveable characters of the films.
Movements (choreography by Garth Fagan) were very poor in places. During the Hyenas' song, the Hyenas jump in front of Simba and Nala (Nia-May Taylor), cutting them off as they run up and down the elephant skeleton…and that is the only executed movement, repeated for the entire song. In Scar’s song, the need for the dancing, 'stunting' Hyenas, waiting on the edges as the rest of the hyena ensemble dances around them, was absolutely perplexing. And with their conspicuously bared chests and tight trousers, further amplifying their sore incongruity with the rest of the ensemble, as well as the odd club music accompanying them, this scene resembled more of an adult club than a children-friendly theatre production. Nala and Simba’s movements together, however, whilst a little simple, were endearing and sufficiently child-like.
“An awe-inspiring performance of captivating visuals vanquished by lack of energy and coherent style.”
Photography property of and credited to: Disney, Disney’s The Lion King The Musical.