Theatre reviews: The Lion King and Birdsong

The new touring production of The Lion King
The new touring production of The Lion King
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The Lion King at The Alhambra, Bradford. By Nick Ahad ****

It is simply one of the most theatrical pieces of work created in the last 20 years.

The Lion King is the perfect example of why theatre is often a more overwhelming, all-encompassing and utterly involving experience than almost any other medium.

It could so easily have been an empty and cynical experience – the film was so successful that you needed a very good reason to turn it into a stage play. Money is the obvious one, but were that the driving force here then it would have nowhere near the heart and passion seen in this production. The reason for this stage play to exist, however, is the vision of theatrical genius, not a word to be used lightly, of Julie Taymor. Some of the aspects of this production might look a little tired – some of the choreography is now commonplace and the spectacular use of puppetry is recreated on stage often –- but to dismiss it as old hat is to forget that Taymor put these elements together over 15 years ago in 1998.

She is the one from whom others have borrowed.

The stage show is attracting a sell-out audience and the gamble of giving the Alhambra Theatre over to one production for an almost unprecedented two months is clearly paying off.

From the moment the theatre bursts into life with the boundary breaking and incredibly exciting entrance of the animals that make up this kingdom, the audience is taken into a theatrical landscape. What remains brilliant about Taymor’s production, travelling out of London for the first time, is that it sneaks into what looks like a brilliantly big and bold musical some seriously boundary pushing theatre devices. Several thousand people will watch contemporary dance in The Lion King over the coming six weeks, and they will love it.

That’s not to say this production is flawless. There are moments where it feels laboured, but they are occasional.

One of the problems is that the production hangs heavy on some very young shoulders.

The story of The Lion King is a coming-of-age tale of young Simba in a structure borrowed from Hamlet. By its nature, the stage play therefore needs a youngster to play Simba. Jude Blake as young Simba does his best, but he can’t help the fact that he is very young and very inexperienced. That said, Nombulelo Chili is revelatory and proves the saying that there are no small parts – she makes every moment that she is on stage count.

As Rafiki Gugwana Diamini demonstrates amply that there is space in Taymor’s production for an actor to make something of the part they are given, but, to borrow from the original source material, the play really is the thing here.

• To May 10.

Birdsong at York Theatre Royal. By Yvette Huddleston ***

Adapting a book for the stage is probably one of the hardest things to get right – especially when you are working with a novel that is held in such affection by an army of readers. Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, a book group favourite and listed in 2003 by a BBC survey as the UK’s 13th most popular novel, works well overall but is not without its flaws.

The story of a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, who meets and falls in love with an older unhappily married woman, Isabelle Azaire, in France just before the outbreak of First World War is, on the page, a powerful tale of forbidden love at a time of great upheaval. On stage, however, the couple’s tentative steps towards a relationship and growing love for each other, so carefully calibrated in the book, is rushed – partly due to the demands of the medium – and this reduces the emotional impact. That’s not helped by the unfortunate lack of chemistry between the two leads George Banks and Carolin Stoltz. What works extremely well, though – and is much more emotionally engaging – is the depiction of the relationship between the soldiers in the trenches. There are stand-out performances from Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace, the Cockney father figure in charge of the sappers building the numerous tunnels under the killing fields of Northern France, and Simon Lloyd as Arthur Shaw a bluff Northerner and family man. Several of the cast play ably more than one role and the transitions between scenes – often involving time shifts between pre-War and wartime – are expertly handled on Victoria Spearing’s wonderful set that incorporates at various points the trenches, a family home, a field hospital and a cafe.

• To March 29.