Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical is popular because it’s a safe bet. There are bright colours, plenty of movement, and a simple storyline which everybody already knows from the cartoon: rambunctious lion cub, Simba, bowls around an unspecified African savanna amongst a menagerie of friendly wildlife. His villainous Uncle Scar kills Simba’s father, Mufasa, and convinces Simba to accept the blame. Simba self-exiles himself to the jungle where he meets comedy double-act Timon and Pumbaa, who teach him the joys of Hakuna Matata and eating caterpillars. Simba grows up, falls in love with his childhood friend Nala, and returns to confront Scar and take his rightful place as king. Everybody lives happily ever after, with all Disney boxes neatly ticked.
The Lion King’s opener, Circle of Life is both musically and visually exciting. Be Prepared, Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight remain great tunes, though there are also more filler songs than you might remember. The show could easily cut ten minutes from both acts and, given the number of children in the audience, it could do with shifting its start time back to 7pm.
Puppets can be found everywhere on the West End at the moment, though The Lion King’s puppetry still holds up (no pun intended). The design of the leopard, the elephant, and the Timon puppets are particularly inventive. The latter is played by Jamie McGregor, a stand-out performance along with Shaun Escoffery as Mufasa. Julie Taymor’s costumes and Richard Hudson’s sets are imposing and imaginative- the wildebeest stampede uses simple effects to create a dramatic setpiece.
The Lion King remains one of the only shows on the West End where the main cast are predominantly actors of colour, and which isn’t set in the UK or America. However, as spoofed in The Book of Mormon, its simplistic depiction of Africa is dated. It’s also noticeable how short a shrift the female characters get- Simba’s mother barely has anything to say about sudden reappearance of her long-lost son!
This long-running show is surely closer to the end than the beginning of its West End stint. When the time comes, it’ll be fascinating to see what replaces The Lion King at the Lyceum. In the meantime, it’s fine. The Lion King isn’t a showstopping musical or a show to split sides or change minds, but it’s a decent evening of entertainment… especially if you’ve just finished your SATs.