Though I like to think of myself as an avid theatre fan, I admit I seem to have a bit of a reputation for being horrendously “late to the party” when it comes to certain shows, especially established long runners. I didn’t see Les Miserables until 2011, and I spent the evening of my birthday in 2013 seeing Jersey Boys for the first time. It’s a pattern that I didn’t mean to fall into, but it makes me smile nowadays because, often, the shows I take the longest to see are the ones that end up meaning the most to me. This is definitely true of The Lion King, which I saw in London for the first time on February 6th, 2016. It got so under my skin that to date in a relatively short time, I’ve racked up six visits, and am always on the lookout for my next opportunity to visit the Pride Lands. The Lyceum, host to the show since it first opened in October 1999 is one of a handful I can count in the West End where I am allowed to sit in the stalls in my wheelchair, so that’s part of why I go so often, but the bigger and more significant reason is the simple fact I love the show and am forever grateful for the talented folks it has brought into my life.
Based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name, the musical tells the story of a young lion cub named Simba, who after a tragic and sinister turn of events at the paws of his villainous uncle Scar, is forced into exile. The time comes however, when Simba must return to take his rightful place as King and continue the circle of life. You’re probably going to laugh at me now when I say that the film was never my favourite Disney growing up, but it has some truly stunning music and lyrics courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice, and the Shakespeare enthusiast in me loves the Hamlet influences. The musical, in my opinion takes all the things that make the film amazing, but managed to bring in some new songs and moments unique to itself, so you go in mostly knowing what you’ll be seeing, but there’s still scope to be surprised! Personally some of my favourites moments in the musical are actually things we don’t see in the film.
One of the things I adore most about the whole experience of the show is the sheer joy I get from being a repeat visitor in an auditorium filled with folks who are likely seeing it for the first time. Being a part of the thunderous applause at the end of Circle of Life at the top of the show is worth the ticket price alone in my opinion but there’s also something special about the humour, and the fact the young kids, and indeed us big kids in the audience are often found laughing at the same jokes, and there are little cultural references thrown in that keep things fresh, like Zazu bursting into a chorus of Let it Go, Timon doing Riverdance, and my personal favourite, the Ikea gag. Visually, I love how colourful and inventive the show is, and there isn’t a scene that goes by where I don’t smile at some point, huge thanks to Director Julie Taymor’s Costume and Puppet Design. The show uses a combination of actors in costume with some extra clever technical wizardry and puppets, my favourites being the headpieces that Scar and Mufasa wear that allow the actors controlling them to mimic the movement of lions, and I am forever in awe of Richard Frame, who currently plays Timon; his puppetry looks like the hardest to master as it must put a real strain on his arms, neck and back!
Scar & Mufasa (Image from http://www.london-theatreland.co.uk/theatres/lyceum-theatre/lion-king-customer-reviews.php)
The production design as a whole is why I appreciate my seat in the stalls so much: my first time was sitting at the very back in Row Z, and while you get a feel for the spectacle, you do miss out on a lot of the finer details. Every visit since I have been lucky enough to park myself in Row P, much closer to the action!
During my time as a fan of the show, thus far I have seen three Simbas, two Nalas, two Rafiki’s, and the odd single change to the Hyena trio. What strikes me each and every time is that, regardless of who is onstage, principal or alternate, you really get the feeling the cast are enjoying what they do. Whether you have a single actor, multiple characters or the entire ensemble around, the sound they create is magic and even after repeat viewings I find myself getting goosebumps or tearing up at particular songs. And it’s not just the adults: I have seen multiple different pairings of Young Simbas and Nalas, and I love how each brings their own nuances to the characters, it completely changes the dynamic and feel of their scenes for me and makes it feel fresh, even though the script is always the same. When it was announced that current Simba (Nicholas Afoa) would be joining the show, I fell head over heels for him immediately after hearing him perform at West End Live, and that was only via Youtube. The first time I saw him live, I was utterly smitten by him by the end of his introduction near the end of Act One where he sings a grand total of 3 lines, so I knew we were onto a winner. Since that first time, I feel like his portrayal of Simba has gone from strength to strength: he brings a warmth and vulnerability to Simba that I find really endearing, but manages to marry this with the little hint of swagger and likeable charm that I think the character needs to make his journey convincing. I love that every so often you also catch a little hint of his native New Zealand accent when Simba is talking, and he holds the record for the only Simba that has managed to move me to tears (in the best possible way) with his rendition of Endless Night.
Nicholas shines as Simba (Image from:https://fromthefrontrow.co.uk/2016/06/27/big-interview-nicholas-afoa/)
Nicholas is joined by Ava Brennan as Nala. The show gives Nala her own solo number: Shadowlands, a part I always look forward to hearing as not only does Ava sings it incredibly well, but it’s one of the ways in which Nala is given more character development than the film affords her; and as such I find her an infinitely more interesting character on stage than I do in the film. Ava’s portrayal is strong and sassy, but she also shares some great moments of humour and romance with Nick, and their chemistry is a joy to watch. Sticking with the theme of “girl power” for a minute, I think one of the other changes I like most from the film is the fact that Rafiki is female. Brown Lindiwe Mkhize, who plays her always puts a smile on my face with the humour she brings to the role and I love watching her feed off the audience’s energy and enthusiasm, not forgetting the fact I am astounded constantly by how such a powerful voice comes out of her frame!
Howard Gossington as Zazu is always a pleasure to watch, and he never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I hear his jokes. The same goes for Richard Frame as Timon and Keith Bookman as Pumbaa; they play off one another so well and their energy and enthusiasm is totally infectious! Shaun Escoffery is ever magnificent as Mufasa, his wonderful, soaring soulful rendition of They Live in You never fails to give me chills. Like with Nala’s character, the musical also gives Mufasa a little more scope for character development, there’s a lovely scene he shares with Zazu where the two talk about parenting and how Simba reminds Zazu of Mufasa when he was that age. I also love Shaun’s scenes with each of the Young Simbas I’ve seen, they are incredibly endearing and Shaun’s smile lights up the room. The scene where Mufasa appears to the older Simba is also one of my favourites; you just hear Shaun’s voice but he has great charisma, onstage and off.
Those that know me well will know I am a total sucker for a great villain; I just find them more exciting and interesting. As such, Scar is my favourite here; he’s clever and cunning, but also has something suave and charming about him that I find completely enchanting; a quality bought out in spades by George Asprey. Each time I see the show, I have been consistently bowled over by George’s presence, (I’m always drawn to watch him even if he isn’t where my attention should be in certain scenes) intensity and gift for subtle humour, I literally sit there in “I know I shouldn’t like you right now, but you’re so good at being evil I really do” mode for the entireity of the show. I can always be found cheering at Curtain call for George, usually when everyone else is giving him the good natured “boo”. I guess for a villain the latter is a sign you’ve done your job well and it always gives me a chuckle, but I can’t bring myself to do it!
Speaking of George, I am always incredibly grateful for his time, warmth, humour and patience with me at Stage Door. My last outing he came out especially to see me between his Jiu Jitsu training just because he was aware I was in watching; something I felt incredibly guilty about but can’t thank him enough for. He asked me how many times that made it now:
“Six? You know it better than I do!”
I wouldn’t go that far, not yet. But I’m pretty sure I love it just as much as he does 😉