The Lion King

Edinburgh Playhouse

Four stars

Until April 18

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Four stars

Until February 15


The phenomenon that is the award-winning stage musical The Lion King has arrived in Scotland, and so successful has it been that its run has already been extended into mid-April. Adapted from Disney’s much-loved 1995 animated movie, the show, which is the biggest grossing musical in Broadway history, is currently playing in nine cities on three continents.

It isn’t difficult to see the basis of its success. The movie, in which the cheated and violently bereaved lion cub Simba ultimately returns in a heroic quest for justice, has been transformed into a genuinely spectacular piece of theatre.

From the very outset, as we are treated to a pageant of impressive, large puppets of African animals – including elephants, a rhinoceros and zebras – it is clear that we are in for a performance of tremendous visual and technical accomplishment. Add to that an array of adored, anthropomorphised animal characters, and the celebrated songs of Elton John and Tim Rice, and it is little surprise that tickets are selling like proverbial hot cakes.

The show is, as one would expect of such a massively successful Disney show, straightforward in narrative, decidedly saccharine in sentiment and exquisitely put together. Whilst the performances of the huge cast are close to flawless, it is the work of the design and technical teams that leave the greatest impression.

The mask for Scar, the none-too-subtly named, evil brother of Simba’s ill-fated father Mufasa, is a thing of ergonomic and dramatic beauty, jutting forward menacingly, as it does, whenever actor Richard Hurst strikes an aggressive pose. The puppets, from birds flying over our heads on flexible poles to a little mouse represented by the ancient art of shadow puppetry, are a constant delight.

The large-scale puppets, which are operated by performers inside them, are the most memorable. Perhaps most ingenious are the giraffes, in which the performers move on legs built around stilts and have long necks connected to their shoulders.

That said, the antelopes, which dance through the savannah on bicycle wheels, speak to a low-tech theatrical ingenuity that we don’t usually associate with big stage musical theatre.

None of this works without actors, of course, and this production boasts a fine, international cast. French performer Jean-Luc Guizonne’s Mufasa strikes the perfect balance between kingly gravitas and reassuring paternalism.

Thandazile Soni (who was a big hit in the Chicago production of The Lion King) plays the elderly mandrill Rafiki as a redoubtable, kind-hearted and hilarious South African auntie. When American actor Dashaun Young and South African performer Josslynn Hlenti arrive on stage as the grown lions Simba and Nala, they take over the characters from the tremendous, young performers Kieron Bell and Kayne Muhumuza.

Hlenti shines as a singer of notable range and power. Matthew Forbes (the hornbill Zazu) and the double act of Steve Beirnaert and Carl Sanderson (as the meerkat Timon and his flatulent warthog friend Pumbaa) add comedy to the tragedy and heroism.

As family stage musicals go, they don’t get more accomplished, or more successful, than The Lion King. The production currently resident in Edinburgh provides ample evidence as to why.

A very significant gear change is required to shift from Disney’s theatrical juggernaut to Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), the hit, all-female Jane Austen spin-off by Scottish theatre company Blood of the Young. I confess, when it premiered at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018, I was not particularly impressed by this decidedly postmodern, ultra-ironic, feminist take on the famous novel.

The show has earned itself critical acclaim, audience adulation and, now, a major revival.

Seeing this new staging (which has picked up a string of major co-producers, from the Lyceum to Birmingham Rep, Leeds Playhouse and plenty more besides), I feel compelled to revise my opinion somewhat.

A theatre critic should never feel uncomfortable in standing against prevailing critical opinion, and I certainly don’t. However, by the same token, I distrust critics who claim that there are never occasions on which they reconsider an earlier review.

I still think that the show – which has had its cast expanded from five to six, but is, otherwise, little changed – is too long (at two hours and 45 minutes). I also continue in the view that its self-conscious postmodern devices (a karaoke machine, microphones and 20th-century pop songs clashing with an approximation of Regency period costumes and furniture) are somewhat hackneyed and far less inventive than some of the show’s admirers seem to think.

That said, as this production (which, in atmospheric terms, fills the Lyceum auditorium with apparent ease) attests, the piece (which was written by Isobel McArthur and directed by Paul Brotherston) has energy to burn. Add to that a constant and good-natured line in jaunty, sometimes jagged, humour and you’re heading towards a winning combination.

Perhaps the show’s greatest strength, however, is its ability (despite its attachment to heavily signposted, postmodern irony) to maintain the emotional essence of Austen’s novel. This is particularly true of the central romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (which is played with a brilliant, and unlikely, combination of sardonic distance and palpable feeling by Meghan Tyler and McArthur).