_Disney's Lion King - The stage show_
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Last weekend I visited London for a day. I don't often go to the city without a good reason, and this time was no different - I had a pair of tickets to see the stage version of Disney's The Lion King in the West End.
I must admit that I hadn't considered going to see this show. I just had too much trouble getting past my memories of it as a kids animated movie for me to be able to take the idea of it as a stage show seriously.
But two tickets to a West End show are two tickets to a West End show, so I grabbed the nearest available friend, and we spent an enjoyable day out in the city.
Before I get onto the review of the show itself, I want to put in an extra side note about the place we stopped for dinner before the show. I have to tell you that I have never eaten such amazing food in my life. I am seriously impressed - almost enough to write a review of that experience all on it's own. However, for the time being, suffice it to say that the venue in question is a floating restaurant on the Thames, near Embankment station, called the R.S. Hispaniola.
Right. Free advertising over and done with, on with the show...
We arrived at the Lyceum Theatre dead on 7:30 (which was co-incidentally the exact published start time for the show). This was mainly due to neither of us remembering to bring a map, and thus being forced to ask directions from several Londoners, until we found one who actually knew the area where he worked.
Fortunately, arriving exactly on time was what most of the rest of the audience did as well, so we didn't suffer the ignominy of arriving last: far from it - there was still a healthy queue at the door when we arrived, and it continued to grow even after we had gone inside.
Our seats were in the so-called Grand Circle, which to non-theatre goers translates to the upstairs section. And when they say "up" and "stairs", they mean both of those words in their fullest measure. Do not buy a Grand Circle seat if you have a weak heart.
The house was quite full, but by an amazing piece of luck, the only empty seat I could see in the entire auditorium happened to be the one right next to us. This was fortunate, as after a day wandering London we had between the two of us enough luggage to fill the extra space quite comfortably.
At this point, I was still expecting the show to be a pale imitation of the cartoon, but then the lights went down, and from the very first second of the performance I could see that I had underestimated it.
The first scene is a seriously impressive feat of costume and choreography. It's actually hard to describe it without sounding slightly awestruck. But if truth be told, that was pretty much how I felt at moments during that opening scene. Quite frankly, that single scene justifies the cost of the ticket. The opening scene, as in the animated version, is supposed to convey the open savannah, teeming with animals. It succeeds with panache.
If you haven't seen it, it would spoil it for me to describe too much, but to whet your appetite, consider the giraffes. If you had told me beforehand that an actor could convincingly portray a giraffe, I don't think I would have believed it. But with just four stilts to walk on, and appropriate costume, they managed to do a giraffe impression that might even have fooled a real one (...briefly).
After the opening scene, the rest of the show might be considered an anticlimax, but it is nonetheless very well done. The young boy they have cast as the lion cub Simba is a particularly good actor, and deserves all the applause he gets. I was also very impressed with the way they interpreted Zazu (the hornbill bird), by having a puppet that sat on the arm of the actor. There were some very clever touches with this character that made full use of the transition from screen to stage.
The story line followed that of the animation fairly tightly for the most part. There were a few deviations: a couple of extra songs, a few tweaks to the script to make it slightly more grown up, and so on, but it generally stayed true to the original.
The one big disappointment I felt about the show was in the part of Rafiki, the monkey. I would have expected this part to have grown for the stage version, but itís actually smaller here than in the animation. I wasn't too impressed with the acting of this part either. I can't specifically fault anything in it, but it didn't seem as well done as the rest. It's a shame, because I think a better part for this character could have added a more rounded feel to the whole show.
But the point at which you remember the show's origins come when the Timon and Pumba characters are introduced. Within a couple of minutes of them arriving, I was having flashbacks to the cheesiest parts of the animated version. It's all there, right down to the (frequent) fart jokes.
Not that I mind the odd fart joke, you understand; they just seemed a little too low-brow for the stage they're on (this is the Lyceum Theatre, after all - a building that was an opera house in a former life, and still has all the grandeur).
However jokes aside, the acting was still good quality, as were the costumes and props. The transition from Simba the lion cub to Simba the adult lion was well executed, and the actor for the adult Simba was almost as good as the boy he replaced.
The final fight scene, in which Simba defeats his uncle, is the climax of the whole story in the animated version. In the stage show it is still climactic, but they have trouble competing with the effects available to the original animators. They do a good job though, and the show ends well with a slightly smaller-scale repeat of the opening scene, to leave everyone feeling impressed at the end.
I left the theatre feeling pleased that I had been. I also left with an entirely different mindset about the idea of transforming an animated story to the theatre stage.
At the end of the day, I am impressed. They have achieved - with flair - something that I would have considered all but impossible, and I applaud them for that. The few negative points I have raised are far outweighed by the good points, and by the sheer scale of the show. Former misgivings have gone and, I can give this show a hearty recommendation.
Spudley Strikes Again