The Lion King Review Bristol Hippodrome:
The Lion King
Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba, they are the words that have silently echoed around Bristol ever since The Lion King’s return to the city was announced and the now ubiquitous yellow posters with the stern lion spread across Broadmead.
It’s definitely hakuna matata for Disney. There should be no worries after the joy with which the show was received by a full house at its official Bristol launch last night.
Disney first brought The Lion King to The Bristol Hippodrome in 2012 to critical and commercial success. The original eleven-week run coincided with the theatre’s 100th birthday celebrations. Such was its popularity, it sold standing spaces on its Grand Circle to meet demand for the first time ever. This year, it’s the musical celebrating its birthday with 20 years at the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End.
Ticket prices for the show are high, though a quick scan shows that you can still pick up excellent seats in Bristol for a bargain £20 if you hunt. So what is it that makes this show so special?
Although the musical is based on a classic animated Disney movie, the show itself has created something very unique from this starting point. There’s a huge list of creatives to thank for this, but much of the credit must go to director and designer Julie Taymor and to Lebo M for the additional layering of African chorus.
This isn’t a Disney cash cow or kids’ show. This is an exquisitely crafted piece of theatre which blends the rich tapestry of the African continent with Western commercial theatre.
It may sound a cliché, but its a fitting one to say that Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book takes the audience on an emotionally draining journey. These are characters that you become invested in. The story is faithful to the original, but, the themes in the story which include love, loss, bereavement, betrayal and fratricide are felt more keenly when seeing humans tell the story through the animals. There is a moving moment when Mufasa removes his mask and gently places it on the ground to talk directly to young Simba, father to son.
Every song was standing ovation worthy due to the craftsmanship of the creatives and the sheer beauty found in the performances of the cast. The use of language in the show transcends cultural barriers. There are six African languages spoken or sung, though if you aren’t fluent in Xhosa or Swahili it really doesn’t matter because it all makes complete sense.
The opening Circle of Life, was a spectacle, greeted by cheers. There isn’t another show that immerses the audience into a world in such a way as full sized elephants brushing past seats, birds spinning above your head or the sheer majesty of giraffes gracefully moving across stage followed by a cheetah.
Puppetry is a big part of the multilayered storytelling techniques in the show, from gazelle push carts, Indonesian shadow puppetry to the Japanese Bunraku of Timon.
The Bristol Hippodrome dressed in yellow for the official opening night launch
The exuberant cast which came together to tell the story was marvellous. It’s impossible to pick out anyone over another – including the young children who were exceptional.
There’s the power and humour from Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, gripping the audience from the second she arrived on stage. Jean-Luc Guizonne’s Mufasa had gravitas. The powerful ruler, family man and loving father was encapsulated in his performance. Dashaun Young grew from insecure juvenile to King of the Pride Lands next to the strength of Josslynn Hlenti’s Nala.
The ensemble are a true backbone to the show, alternating between cheerful desert plants, fleeing gazelles, hunting lionesses and soaring birds. Their rousing vocals and powerful dance provided the rich backdrop to the Lion King universe.
Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba, ‘Here comes a lion, father, Oh yes it’s a lion’ is the translation according to the internet. It’s not just any lion, it’s a lion king, it’s brilliant and it’s at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 23 November 2019.
Sensory Advice – Contains Show Spoilers
There is a Relaxed Performance of The Lion King on Tuesday 19 November at 5pm. Not everyone is going to be able to make that date, so for those on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing difficulties, this is our advice.
At the start, Rafiki will come on stage for the Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba and will address her vocals to two antelope who are positioned in side boxes. The call and responses are quite loud and may be unexpected. Once the Circle of Life starts, the two inner gangways of the stalls auditorium will see a procession of full sized animals come down through the audience and walk onto the stage. The elephant is full sized, this is not an exaggeration. It’s impressive but not what people used to more conventional theatre will expect.
The Pridelands (scene 4) will see the female lions hunting. Towards the end, they will rip the limbs off of a wooden puppet. It’s not violent.
I Just Can’t Wait To Be King (scene 6) is a fun scene. Towards the end of the song, several very tall giraffes will lean forward with their heads over and above the front row of the stalls auditorium.
The show overall is quite loud. If you are sensitive to sound, you may wish to have ear plugs or ear defenders.
A good rule of thumb is hyenas tend to accompany the loudest scenes. Once young Simba and Nala get to the elephant graveyard (scene 7) there will be intermittent very loud smoke effects shooting up from the stage. They are quite sudden without warning and could be somewhat problematic for those who struggle with sudden loud noises and unexpected events.
Be Prepared (scene 9) is very loud and will see a procession of hyenas come down the inner gangways of the stalls auditorium. Again, there are smoke effects from the stage throughout, the music is loud and the hyenas’ dance movements are very strong.
The stampede (Scene 10) is very loud and full on. It’s an impressive scene but features the hard hitting theme of the death of a parent. Mufasa falls from a cliff and dies on stage. Not literally, but it’s a potentially upsetting and triggering scene. Young Simba will exit through the stalls auditorium.
Act Two Entr’acte with the song One by One, will feature puppeteers with birds on high poles in the stalls auditorium, in the bottom gang ways of the grand circle and from side boxes.
The penultimate battle scene – this starts with sleeping hyenas on Pride Rock and Simba creeping onto the stage – is very loud with lots of movement, noise and loud effects.
After Scar falls from Pride Rock, he is attacked and killed by the three main hyenas. It’s not particularly violent, but it’s not glossed over either.
Strobe lighting is used intermittently throughout, but not overdone. It’s mostly when the two lions die falling from height.
Autism is a spectrum and those with the condition perceive the world differently. This is not an exhaustive list, it’s not an official list, but the potentially challenging moments we feel the show may create for those who at times struggle with the unexpected.
Disney recommends the show as suitable for children aged six years upwards. Children under 3 years will not be permitted into the auditorium.
If you don’t catch it in Bristol it will be at Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre from 09 July to the 29 August 2020