There might be more brilliantly entertaining and thrillingly imaginative family shows out there than The Lion King, I suppose. But in my decades of going to the theatre, I’ve never seen one yet.
Nor indeed have I ever found myself, once again, open-mouthed in wonderment at such a sophisticated production with so many fart jokes. Without star names and not built around hit songs, here the show really is the thing, and I hope that can be said without in any way diminishing the multi-talented cast or off-stage team of this rare blend of commercial and artistic triumph.
This is the third time it’s toured to Manchester, there are many other productions around the globe and, as it approaches its 30th birthday as a stage production, it becomes more and more evident that its success rests largely on a risky artistic choice made early on by the often risk-averse Disney organisation. Deciding to put the theatricalising of its perfectly likeable and family-friendly, but hardly earth-shattering, cinema hit The Lion King not into the hands of some competent musical theatre hack, but into those of the fearless, somewhat controversial, theatre, opera and film director Julie Taymor proved to be a masterstroke. Years ago, I remember laughing disbelievingly with Julie at the unlikely notion that she, of all people, might be called upon for the task as we enjoyed a curry in Rusholme, just before introducing her notoriously bloody film Titus (a version of Shakespeare’s always-controversial Titus Andronicus) to a still shell-shocked audience at the old Cornerhouse cinema in Manchester.
With The Lion King, Julie decided to bring a genuine theatrical gravity to a fairly simple coming-of-age animated tale, employing all manner of ingenious stage magic but essentially trusting in the imagination of the audience to make their own leap to the African savannah, even though they can see before their very eyes the brilliant puppeteers, actors and dancers inhabiting the lions, giraffes, ostriches, hyenas, gazelles and elephants of this magnificent but scary world we are suddenly in the midst of, right from its jaw-dropping opening sequence. There are, inevitably, funny animals too, notably the trusted advisor/ostrich Zazu (Matthew Forbes), the preposterous, pungent warthog Pumbaa (Carl Sanderson) and the, erm, whatever Timon is (Alan Mchale).
Crucially, they are all genuinely funny, adding yet another layer to an endlessly-watchable production already blessed with a superbly intriguing musical soundtrack, some exquisite theatrical sleight of hand and terrific performances, all in service of a wonderful celebration of just how awe-inspiring live theatre can be.
Main image by Brinkoff and Mogenburg
The Lion King runs at the Palace Theatre until March 11, 2022. For more information please click here.