music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
directed by Julie Taymor
at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday 15th May 2011
It’s not often you get to go back to see a show ten years after you first saw it. Like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King is slowly becoming a London institution. It has seen thousands of performances since its opening in 1999 and countless casts have passed through the Lyceum’s stage door. The first time I saw this production I was nine years old, so naturally my views have become more discerning, but Julie Taymor’s production of the much-loved movie certainly seems to have deteriorated rather than improved over time.
Anyone born in the 80s and 90s knows this story, as does any parent of children from that period. Disney’s The Lion King has moments of pure, heartbreaking emotion (you all know the scene I’m talking about), but in the West End version the performances are devoid of any motive. The actors are simply going through the motions; it is clear they’re copying their predecessors rather than finding their own feet in a character. Movement and intonation are so rehearsed that it’s like watching robots.
Some actors cope well with their limited direction; Shaun Escoffery as Mufasa works this well, as does Stephen Matthews as a zany Zazu. Funny turns are given from Nick Mercer and Keith Brookman as Timon and Pumbaa, and George Asprey as the evil Scar is suitably melodramatic and droll. But where it matters, the acting is shoddy. Although only young, Ralf Herborg as Young Simba never finds his feet and as his older incarnation, Dashaun Young understudies without much confidence. Narran McLean’s Nala is the weakest link, failing to capture any emotion and singing flat throughout the entire opening of ‘Shadowland’.
Even the good performances aren’t able to shine, however, due to the poor quality of Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book. Compared to the carefully understated screenplay, this text is over-written and contains too many lines which try to explain things to an audience, underestimating the intelligence of its spectators.
But for all its faults, Julie Taymor’s production succeeds in creating spectacle. Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics are stunning, as is Richard Hudson’s set design. A tribal, African world is created, revelling in native language and symbols whilst recreating scenes from the film beautifully. The most impressive aspect of this design is Taymor’s costume and Michael Curry’s masks and puppets, which put extraordinary life-like animals on stage in the way War Horse does. The only criticism is that they feel underused; we only see the impressive elephant in the opening ‘Circle of Life’.
It’s such a shame that such a visually and aurally spectacular production has lost its way over the years, cutting out ‘The Morning Report’ and descending into skin-deep emotion. It’s clear that when entering a role performers aren’t given any leeway, meaning the script is only meaningful to children under eleven. The levels of emotion in the extraordinary reprise of ‘He Lives in You’ need to be sustained throughout for the story to have any impact beyond the colourful world Taymor has created. It seems all this needs is a bit of a shake-up and some acting coaching, which would once again cement its position as one of the ‘must-see’ shows on the West End.