Nala reunited with Simba and pleading with him to return to claim his thrown

The Lion King

Birmingham Hippodrome


If there is a bigger, more spectacular, colourful musical than The Lion King around, then it has passed the world by unnoticed.

This is a magnificent, magical piece of theatre created with top class traditional stagecraft with not a hint of CGI or video in sight, it just uses that greatest of special effects of all – imagination.

Based on the Disney film, which in turn was based on Hamlet, it is a tale of political intrigue and betrayal, of good overcoming evil, set not in the corridors of power but on a rocky outcrop, Pride Rock, somewhere in the African savanna, the ancient seat of the kingdom of lions.

The current king is Mufasa, played with a regal air by France’s Jean-Luc Guizonne. He manages the right balance between leader of a nation and a father trying to teach his young son the values he needs to be a fair and just king when his time comes.

And his time comes near the end of Act 1 when Mufasa’s brother, Scar, his nose put out of joint at being passed over for the kingship, and then his place in the line of succession usurped by Mufasa’s son Simba (Swahili for Lion incidentally), decides a simple matter of assassination is the way forward, perhaps remove a heir or, even better a touch of the king is dead, long live the king.

RSC actor Richard Hurst is simply magnificent as the devious, smarmy, evil, plotting Scar, even when pretending to be a . . . loving? . . . uncle to Simba, there is a lurking undercurrent of anger and evil – deliciously devilish.

As for young Simba, there is a choice of half a dozen to pick from playing the role in turn, and on Press night Ro’jae Simpson in the role gave it all he had with wonderful, infectious enthusiasm.

The same could be said of his girlfriend lioness cub Nala, another perm any one from six, and the Nala on Press night, Adreanna Steventon-Todd, made us believe we were watching two young children setting out to play on a child’s adventure.


The shaman Rafiki and her magical window into the future

Children grow up though and Kyle Richardson was a rather nervous, doubting Simba, in self imposed exile after blaming himself for the death of his father in a stampede of wildebeest, while Janique Charles arrived as the grown up Nala to condemn Simba’s absence and cajole him to take back his birthright. The fight on!

Around them we have some lovely humour with Matthew Forbes as Zazu, the hornbill advisor to the king, giving us some real knockabout laughs and then there are Timon and Pumbaa, played by Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson, the unlikely pairing of a wisecracking meerkat and a somewhat flatulent warthog. Pumbaa, incidentally, is Swahili for amuse, which describes him admirably.

The unlikely duo rescue Simba as the exhausted young cub who has run away from the pride is being circled by vultures.

If there is a criticism of The Lion King it is that it give an undeserved bad press to hyenas but someone has to be the baddy and at least the main trio in the musical are fun, in a sort of baddy way with Candida Mosoma as Shenzi, Michael Jeremiah as Banzai and Alex Bloomer as . . . Ed, the dimmer witted one.

They are sort of panto villains, cleverly mixing sinister with plain daft, unlike the rest of the hyena army who are more your common or garden thugs employed as muscle.

Like every good folk tale there has to be a shaman in there somewhere, and here it is Rafiki the |mandrill, (Swahili for friend) played by Nosipho Nkonqa, and what a voice the lady brings to the role, powerful and clear.


Giraffes on the move at sunrise in Prideland. Picture: Deen van Meer Netherlands

We were already familiar with African music from the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon’s Graceland and The Lion King is full of African inspired music and rhythms set around the music of Elton John and Tim Rice. Stand out moments include Mufasa creating the theme of stars looking down on us in They Live in You, Nala giving us a fine Shadowland and Simba a moving Endless Night.

And the music from an excellent 10 piece orchestra under musical director Matt Abrams is augmented by two remarkably hard working percussionists, Atanas Dochev and Jack McCarthy, with huge African inspired drum kits in balcony berths on either side of the auditorium.

The real spectacle of the show though is the costumes from Julie Taymor ,who also designed the puppets with Michael Curry, all brought to life by a huge cast. A busy lady, Julie Taymor is also the director who has created a theatrical spectacle.

We open with all manner of animals, including a huge one-man operated elephant entering down the aisles, slowly filling the stage with a menagerie, a veritable safari park of wildlife. The puppets and creations cleverly do enough to represent rather than try to mimic the animals which works well. Our heads tell us its just a bloke on stilts, but our imagination tell us its a giraffe, that's the magic of theatre.

 We even get shadow puppets to help the tale along. Video might have been easier but that would have lost the all the charm and magic of theatre for youngsters – and those young at heart - in the audience.

As for the stagecraft designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder use cloths from the flies, roll on and off blocks and changes in lighting to create an African world on stage. Even the opening sunrise is created with a sun slowly rising into the flies. Simple and oh so effective, let the story tell itself. Even the stampede of wildebeest is created with increasing numbers of cast in increasing size of mask with terror created by Garth Fagan’s choreography.

It's a decade, to the month, since The Lion King made its last royal visit to the Hippodrome and since then it has matured, seen a few changes and perhaps become more sophisticated but ten years on it has not lost the art of storytelling nor the charm and simplicity that so captures the hearts and imagination of children . . . of all ages.

The pride will be battling it out on the Hippodrome stage to 16-09-23.

Roger Clarke


Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre