The Lion King – Edinburgh Playhouse

Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice

Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi

Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julia Taymor

1994, The Lion King, was by and large a tremendous gamble for The Walt Disney Company. It would go on to break records, particularly for animation, launch platinum soundtracks and define generations emotional state. An extravagance of stage enchantment there’s little to say which hasn’t been said before. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Pride Lands, the production is as compelling as ever, and if you’re a fresh cub to the Savannah sun – how we envy your ability to see this for the first time.

With the break of dawn, and those familiar notes courtesy of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple of tingled necks erupts throughout The Edinburgh Playhouse. By the climax of The Circle of Life, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has made its mark, a literal stamp on musical theatre. The brilliance of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score, with a deeper infusion of African tones and vocals, set against the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is the playground of puppets who take inspiration from every cultural aspect of African, European and Asian design.

Born to be king, Simba is a young cub who can’t wait to claim his crown. His folly though lies in this blind-sighted ambition, naïve to the dangers of the Kingdom and those closer to home, Simba is usually under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or his father Mufasa, king of the Pridelands. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds the opportunity to seize control of the pride and eliminate both his brother and his nephew.

How does one emulate a timeless narrative which captured to hearts of generations, crafting a stage version of something which is already a loose adaptation of a Shakespearean classic? The answer is that Allers and Mecchi’s book blends the sources closer together, while Julie Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design elevate the production into a unique visage, The Lion King maintains the 1994 films plot, characters and structure, with only a few additions. Its framework is less animated, for obvious reasons, but in place of this, it achieves a sense of realness, even with the vibrant hues of physical prop design, masks and puppetry. 

From the aesthetic to the audio and lighting, The Lion King is an extravagant parade of sensory thrill. Donald Holder’s lighting, casts a spectrum of emotion and tone, complimenting the piece flawlessly, ranging from the bold colours of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, to the softer mutes of Soni’s interludes as Rafiki’s marvellous presence captivates us all. Award-winning, identifiable and reflecting both the life on the African plains, and the death which tragically can follow, Taymor & Michael Curry’s puppet design, from the mousiest to the tallest is nothing shy of perfection, with a variety of designs, including Japanese Bunraku puppets.

Scorching the imagination, The Lion King’s stirring search into the difficulties of loss, on such scale is as inspirational as ever. The entirety of Simba’s evolution, from innocence into, essentially, depression and his journey to acceptance and eventual forgiveness, not only from his pride but his own, is told entirely through the score, intensified by visual effects and Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, spoken from a stage enveloping mask, to the score of Under The Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases Jonathan Gill’s conduction of the orchestra, and Dashaun Young’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.

A resident supporter of the bad boys, even we must accept the revulsion one expects with Scar, notorious as one of the few successful villains who “removes” his obstacles in pursuit of the crown. Silver-tongued yet so roguishly charismatic, Richard Hurst emulates the original depiction of the character but morphs into the physicality of Taymor’s costume design. Older, less agile, Taymor’s Scar is a planner, a tactician, but the sculpt of his headpiece, as remarkable as it may be, succeeds only with Hurst’s facial expression. Tip-toeing the line, Hurst’s performance leans on exaggeration, requiring to do so to remain sinister, without distancing the audience.

In a choice manoeuvre, though no less pleasant, his original stand-out number from the film, Be Prepared, is turned from a fast-paced, volatile number into a spoken song. Hurst’s position as a graduate of The Royal Academy comes, naturally, with control of his vocals, which is evident in his following number The Madness of King Scar, elevates Scar into a Shakespearean foe, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons iconic performance. Quintessentially Machiavellian, Hurst’s performance, heralding the dawning of a new age, is only successful with his denizens of the Elephant Graveyard.

Looking to Chow Down on what they can, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed, the slack-jawed, cackling trio of Hyena’s return but with an added musical number for their stage outing, performed by Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder & Alan McHale. As intimidating as the characters may be, helped with the hunched, looming presence they pervade, they serve as an example of The Lion King’s key strength is its side characters and humour. The Hyena’s, Timon & Pumba and most certainly Zazu quite often rob a few scenes away from our leads.

Matthew Forbes, frequently breaking the fourth wall to advertise Disney’s other properties, is a delight to watch prance, frolic and stress around the stage, fleeing after our Young Simba and Nala. Leaping to the other end of the spectrum, where Frobe’s comedic talents dominate, Jossylnn Hlenti’s Nala and Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi propel the lionesses to the forefront. Hlenti’s attitude, her precise movement to Garth Fagan’s choreography commands a stage presence equal to that of Ohene Maccarthy’s stoic authority.

Particularly for the lionesses, Fagan’s rhythmic choreography is powerfully adept, traditional dance mingles with a performance element of movement for the puppets. From the heavy beats of the Hyena’s break dancing to the looser, community feel of One by One, with free-flowing birds and the big number He Lives In You, The Lion King is as much a production for the dance enthusiasts as it is the vocalists and the storytellers.

So, in the immortal words of Scar himself; ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared for a pride’s golden age, a glorious production which celebrates life, redemption and rejects the wallowing doldrums of regret. A story for the ages, from Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King from stage conception has been a pinnacle of musical theatre, of artistic construction and as the King returns to Edinburgh, there’s an understandable desire to recapture childhoods and introduce new fans to The Circle of Life.

The Lion King runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until Sunday March 29th 2020. Tickets are available from: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/disneys-the-lion-king/edinburgh-playhouse/

Photo Copyright – Walt Disney Company

Mother Goose – The Byre Theatre

Directed and Written by Gordon Barr

Musical Direction by Stephen Roberts

Dust off the tinsel, crack open the advocaat and expand those pipes – it’s Pantomime season. With a vast tradition within the community, The Byre Theatre may have changed a few hands, had a few facelifts and seen more people through its doors than Mother Goose’s boudoir, but its annual Christmas celebration is a highlight for the town, for Fife and Scotland. Writer & director Gordon Barr takes his pen to the world of fairy tales once anew to lift the spirits of those who could do with one thing: a bloomin’ marvellous time out.

She’s kind, big-hearted and a wee national treasure in her own right, Mother Goose has been looking after the kids, creatures and whatever’s of Phantasia for, well, more years than she would dare admit. With her bright and happy helpers, Peter Pan and Red Riding Hood, nothing could ruin this near-perfect life with her most naive child, Bruce the Goose. That is until a splinter of frost emerges from Mother Goose’s past. A speckle of snow, from a royal adversary, who excels in drawing out the worst in us.

As time goes on, a difficulty arises in pantomime. There are only so many jokes we can hear, and a limit to the cringes we can take. Barr’s script, rifles itself with these sorts of gags, but has one key strength; delivery. Borrowing from some of Disney’s newer franchises, particularly the Descendant’s line, Mother Goose packs itself with references from our cherished childhood stories and their Hollywood counterparts. A massive cast dominates the A B Paterson auditorium, in a set leaping right from the covers of a story-book, garishly bright, panto-perfect. It’s all just too wonderfully sweet to bear, especially for our antagonist – The Snow Queen, a cold-hearted witch, with a devious tool – an indistinguishable accent.

Soaking-up every boo, thriving on hisses, Stephen Arden is a natural-born baddie. Evidence of Arden’s choreography talent becomes clear during a roguish rendition of Chicago’s Cellblock Tango, with icy representations of Panto’s foulest foes arising once more to perform a standout number which forces us to root for the baddies. Then again, Arden makes a compelling case for evil to triumph, as one of the countries’ nastiest Panto villains. Ruthless and cruel, but with solid vocals, Arden isn’t just a foppish performer hamming his role, instead, The Snow Queen has stage presence, spitting out venom which only Mother Goose can match.

Any familiar with the Byre’s festive season will no doubt be a fan of Alan Steele, the resident panto dame. As Mother Goose, Steele channels a sense of community with choice words for the productions second half, elevating this panto into a touching rendition on self-worth and image. As sentimental as Steele’s interpretation of Barr’s script maybe, his firm footing in the art of performance is second to none. With full control of the crowd, reading where the inebriates are, where the kids causing a riot maybe, and certainly where to find the unsuspecting love interests, Steele’s Mother Goose is vivacious, bodacious and decked out in all the halls.

Stitching up these queens of the stage, Siobhan’s wardrobe supervision, with Carys Hobbs’ design, makes for seamless transitions, moving from the bedazzled gown to comforting apron and showstopping peacock flairs. Mother Goose has a festive feel running throughout, it’s a cosy atmosphere, larger than life performances and revoltingly bright, colourful and cheerful children.

It’s a family affair, with the occasional nod to the parents in the audience, but as always, we seek our biggest laughs in the ad-libs and flubs. You can measure a lot from a team’s ability to run with the absent lighting cues or line trips, and the Mother Goose team rise to the challenge, rolling it into the script itself with ease. Coaxing the crowd into showing a bit more mirth, Robert Elkin’s Bruce the Goose is a spirited role, easing a rather timid Saturday crowd into relaxing, enjoying and engaging. Raising smiles with the kids, and expectations with the adults, Stephanie McGregor’s splendid vocals as Little Red are the stand-out notes, matched only by her comedic delivery.

Regional theatre at its most colourful, Mother Goose keeps itself rooted in Panto tradition, splashing a fair whack of cultural flair into its aesthetics. Supported by a solid cast, and a town who will fall behind the theatre’s history, The Byre Theatre houses a 24-carat egg of fizzing festive joy.

Mother Goose runs at The Byre Theatre until January 4th. Tickets available from: https://byretheatre.com/events/mother-goose/

Photo Credit: Viktoria Begg

Daphne, or Hellfire

Writer: Isla Cowan

Director: Avigail Tlalim

Some might find familiarity in the tale of Apollo & Daphne, at the very least, a spark of recognition could occur with the idea of a young woman, a nymph, surrendering her flesh into bark, transforming into a tree to avoid Apollo’s amorous assault. Daphne, Or Hellfire is a new script from Isla Cowan, a rising Scottish playwright who aims to raise Daphne from the folly of mythology, instilling her with a core of feminism and tie the myth into our blindness towards climate change.

A young couple, hopelessly romantic, disgustingly so, Daphne has her career, as well as a passion for ecological studies, landscaping and promoting our ignorance of climate change. Apollo, dashing as ever, is a young marketing guru, who just so happens to be working with a housing development. A twisted parable for the 21st century, Cowan drags Daphne and Apollo from a world of Gods, acropolises and Ambrosia, into a realm of capitalism, property and rice-pudding.

We’ll say this, while other productions dance around the subject of our planets violation at the hands of everyday capitalism, Cowan’s work takes no interest in a soft approach. It’s a refreshingly volatile piece, which has intention behind the writing. There is no sugar coating or skirting the issue – Daphne, Or Hellfire is an impactful production which refuses to bow to ease of access, keeping its source material close to the vein of the story, while wrapping it in a powerful eco-feminist coating. In doing so, cracks occur in the overall neatness of the show.

An issue lies with Apollo’s depiction. Taking from his inspiration, Apollo is meant to come across as brash, boastful and encapsulating everyday attitudes surrounding the environment and waste. When in reality, Patrick Errington’s Apollo is just too damned nice. He comes across as borderline boastful, but all too mortal. Enabling a connection with the audience, who can sympathise with Apollo’s protestations at recycling, rejected gifts and pursuing a career, Errington is too human, too easy to understand with and at times, places Daphne as the frustrating of the two.

A powerhouse on stage, Cowan’s conviction in her performance is as strong as her writing. It takes time for a presence to build, but this is in line with the character as Daphne emerges from the shadow of her partner and father’s constant pressure. By the finale, Cowan’s physicality, seething with a suppressed, is impressive, intimidating and demonstrates her performance capability along with her writing. Daphne is no more a nymph of legend, she is a woman. Proud, determined but most importantly – human.

How fitting, that in the original mythos, it is an arrow of lead which begins Daphne’s downfall from fierce nymph, and here it is the lead-laden air we breathe in which Daphne chooses her form to be at one with the earth. Cowan’s writing is at most impressive here, subverting the narrative she adapts it from, taking Daphne’s cry for help and morphing it into the empowerment of femininity, tying it to her relationship with the earth. If anything, it’s painful to realise that a portion of the script is perhaps too sharp for a general audience, who most likely miss out on the nuances of these portions of the script.

Here, is both the heel and strength of Daphne, or Hellfire. It’s a masterful piece of poetic writing from a new playwright, which leans heavily on ambitions, risks alienating an audience. Cowan is a playwright that any in Scotland would do well to keep an eye too, channelling her very own hellfire to scorch the earth, her passion evident, her aggression tightened into her pen.