There is enough jaw-dropping theatrical spectacle in The Lion King to tickle even the most hardened theatre critic’s palate. As the procession of animals makes its way down the aisle at the beginning or the cast controls a flight of coloured birds across the auditorium after the interval, you really are transported thousands of miles away from the Strand on a drizzly London night to the primary colours and vegetation of the Africa Savannah.
The grass grows upward to become a swaying part of cast head-dresses. The flying and the exuberant, impeccably lit sets are stunningly imaginative too. And all that is counterpointed by some riveting, powerfully rhythmic African-style singing – as pure as plainsong – mostly by the elastic-bodied Gugwana Dlami.
The time-honoured plot – Hamlet meets The Jungle Book – is about families, leadership, growth to adulthood and meeting challenges. Some fine performances hold it together. The multi-talented Jordan Laviniere, one of the three boys who rotate the role of Young Simba on different nights, has extraordinary stage presence for a child so young. And the fruity-voiced Rob Edwards as the villainous Scar is a deliciously strong foil for the forces of good.
The puppetry is outstanding. Mark Hadfield skilfully creates a convincing cartoon character on stage in the rubbery Timon and Eric Mallett’s compelling manipulation of the bird Zazu makes fine theatre. Stilted cast members as very convincing life-size giraffes are impressive too.
The songs are competently sung but largely unmemorable. You certainly come out fortified with the feel-good factor but you do not come out humming melodies. But that is a minor quibble. For an evening’s magical escapism, shows do not come much better than this.