The Lion King — a majestic theatrical treat

The Lion King, Disney, UK tour, opening night September 7, 2012, at the Hippodrome, Bristol cast: Nicholas Nkuna (Simba), Carole Stennett (Nala), Cleveland Cathnott (Mufasa), Stephen Carlile (Scar), Gugwana Diamini (Rafiki), Meilyr Sion (Zazu), John Hasler (Timon), Mark Roper (Pumbaa), Daniel Norford (Banzai), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Shenzi), Philip Oakland (Ed)
The Lion King, Disney, UK tour, opening night September 7, 2012, at the Hippodrome, Bristol cast: Nicholas Nkuna (Simba), Carole Stennett (Nala), Cleveland Cathnott (Mufasa), Stephen Carlile (Scar), Gugwana Diamini (Rafiki), Meilyr Sion (Zazu), John Hasler (Timon), Mark Roper (Pumbaa), Daniel Norford (Banzai), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Shenzi), Philip Oakland (Ed)
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This week it was revealed that The Lion King is the highest grossing musical at the box office in history, and on its showing at the Sunderland Empire it is easy to see why.

From the first moment when the incredible Thulisile Thusi opened the show, you knew you were in for a treat.

If the start of the Disney film is the best of any animated production, then the introduction to the stage show must be the best beginning to anything you will see.

It is unusual to have the highlight at the start, but this is no usual piece of theatre. It took less than five minutes to move the young lady sitting in front of me to tears, and it wasn’t the last time the tissues were needed.

This is not a comforting warm slice of sugary Disney apple pie, it is more a deep wedge of the most indulgent, multi-layered gateau, served up as if on a terrace overlooking the African plain.

It is a lavish spectacle of theatre in all its forms — song, dance, lighting, costume, set, props, acting and puppetry, of several kinds.

The story is a loose version of Hamlet (minus the incestuous mother and tragic girlfriend, hardly typical Disney themes) — an uncle who claims the throne and a rightful heir avenging his father’s death. It is as much for adults as the kids.

The production, its music, characters, costumes and movement, are inspired by cultures across the globe, from Japan via Scotland to the good old US of A, but it is Africa at its heart. As the rhythm of the pridelands pulses out you can almost feel the heat of the sun and the chill of the caves, aided by the clever lighting and set.

The 52-strong cast take the form of the land, scenery and animals — the sway of the grassland, the slinky cheetah and the loping giraffes are just some to mention, but with 26 different species of animal represented you are spoilt for choice.

There are more than 700 elaborate costumes used in the show and they are nothing short of spectacular. Who would have thought a lion outfit could show such extremes of joy and despair?

Of course, the costumes are given life by the excellent actors. Perfection has obviously been demanded in every aspect of this production and there is not a weak link among the cast.

Christopher Colquhoun is the perfect villain as evil Uncle Scar, but of equal note is the understated, graceful strength of Melina M’Poy as Nala.

And if all this sounds a bit too serious, there is delightful light relief from Timon (Dominic Brewer) and Pumbaa (Lee Ormsby) and their Hakuna Matata attitude, and the Glaswegian hornbill Zazu (Meilyr Sion), not forgetting the marvellous hyena pack.

Children will be captivated by the colours, the costumes, the music, and of course favourite family characters, while adults can sit back in awe at this delicious extravaganza of theatre.

As the final curtain came down, the lions were drowned out by the roar of approval from the audience. Something that will surely be repeated throughout the seven-week Sunderland run.

Tickets are still available. See www.thelionking.co.uk for details.

Anna Smith