IF THIS winter’s chill is getting to you – and your heart feels sore and cold – it’s hard to imagine a better instant remedy than a visit to the Playhouse, where the current radiant UK stage production of Disney’s The Lion King is settling in for a three-and-a-half-month stay. The greatest fan of the show – with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice – could not call it profound: it deals with vital 21st century themes to do with the circle of life and the balance of nature in a way that is both superficial and highly individualised, with the whole problem resolved by the return of a good king.
The Lion King, Playhouse, Edinburgh **** | Pinocchio, Tramway, Glasgow ***
The appeal of the Lion King stage show, though, is not in the detail of its script and lyrics, but in the magnificent, glowing atmosphere it creates, like a true taste of Africa in the depths of a northern winter. The colours and images conjured up by the design team of Richard Hudson, Julie Taymor, Donald Holder and Michael Curry are simply breathtaking, ranging from surging African sunrises over the savannah to the magical parade of animals evoked through shadow silhouettes and glorious giant puppets, with an artistry that delves deep into the movement and style of each beast to find its deep biological affinity with us, the human race that has brought so many of them close to extinction.
Against this backdrop – and through these terrific costumes and puppet-sculptures – the show’s 30-strong cast deliver a passionate, beautiful and committed performance, led by Jean-Luc Guizonne as the king lion Mufasa, Dashaun Young as his son Simba, Brian Gilligan as wicked uncle Scar, and Thandazile Soni as the singing wise woman, Rafiki.
The show comes complete with superb, spine-tingling choral singing, terrific dance sequences, and some splendid work from its 11-piece orchestra; and while the show itself fairly raises the Playhouse roof, it’s also humbling to think of the hundreds of personal and family stories contained within a company like this one, linking Britain to Africa through a thousand threads of brilliant, tangled, and complex history.
At the Tramway, meanwhile, the Citizens’ Company in exile makes the always dangerous decision to try to make a Christmas show out of Carlo Collodi’s dark tale of Pinocchio; and – like every company I’ve seen attempt it – only partly succeeds. If all the best Christmas shows offer a struggle between good and evil, the problem with Pinocchio is that in the first half of the tale, there’s barely any good to be seen. Gepetto is old and grumpy, the friendly cricket keeps being squashed, Pinocchio himself is a heartless little fool; and he’s surrounded by an unrelieved gallery of nasty characters, from bigoted townspeople to the evil circus boss who finally gains control of him.
So despite the presence in the creative team of a fairly dazzling gallery of talent – from writers Lu Kemp and Robert Alan Evans, through director Dominic Hill, to a cast led by Andy Clark and Irene Allan – the Citizens’ company struggle to make much of a connection with the audience, in a first act that offers a few feeble moments of audience participation, but otherwise barely seems to know what to do with itself, on Rachael Canning’s luscious toy-theatre-style set.
Things improve substantially in the second half, as Pinocchio starts to assert his love for Gepetto and need to see him again, and a recognisable alliance of good folk begins to gather around him.
There’s nothing about this show, though, to alter my suspicion that Collodi’s bitter adult satire on a greed-riven society is more than children should be expected to bear at Christmas; and that to work as festive entertainment, it needs a strong, sugary dose of Disneyfication that Dominic Hill would never give it, and that the story itself tends to resist, to the last.
The Lion King until 29 March; Pinocchio until 4 January