Review of Disney's The Lion King at the Sunderland Empire

It was the pride of Sunderland Empire long before curtain up on opening night – the venue’s fastest-selling show ever.
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Disney’s The Lion King has roared into the city for a mammoth seven-week run, bringing the sights and sounds of the Savannah to Sunderland and it didn’t disappoint audiences on press night, who’ve been hungry for its return to Wearside since the pride last stalked the stage in 2014.

An air of anticipation rippled through the audience from the distinctive opening bars of Circle of Life as characters make their way on the stage from the back of the auditorium in a Noah’s Ark-esque parade.

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Sit on the end of the stalls and you may well have a life-size elephant or zebra brush your arm as they ascend to the Pride Lands.

Disney's The Lion KingDisney's The Lion King
Disney's The Lion King

It’s a trademark opening number of the show and a clever way of immersing you in this story of friendship, loyalty and good vs evil. So too is the placing of the percussionists in side boxes as the distinctive rhythms of African music reverberate through the the Edwardian theatre.

The cadence of African life, its ebb and flow is, of course, pivotal to the show as we follow plucky Simba as he finds his place in the world.

As an excitable cub, he was played with great energy and expression by Ro'Jae Simpson on press night who perfectly personified the little lion. .

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At the other end of the scale to Simba’s innocence is malevolent uncle Scar, played by Richard Hurst who’s a delicious baddie as he snarls his way around the stage.

Rafiki in The Lion KingRafiki in The Lion King
Rafiki in The Lion King

Meanwhile, his brother Mufasa, is played with real commanding, majestic presence by Jean-Luc Guizonne that’s befitting of this King of the Jungle.

Fans of the hit film which inspired the musical (the recommended age for children is 6+) won’t be disappointed with all the familiar elements there, such as Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight.

But the musical really fleshes the characters out and gives this beloved tale more depth and dimension.

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Take for instance the stampede scene, one of the most moving in the film, which leads to the death of Mufasa. Hard to imagine how they could recreate the thundering herd of wildebeest with the limitations of a stage, but it’s executed with such skill and aplomb that you can almost feel the whoosh of the beasts as they surge past you.

Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Photo Johan PerssonDisney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Photo Johan Persson
Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Photo Johan Persson

Lighting too is incredibly rich, drenching the Empire stage in the burnt orange hues and azure blue of the savannah.

As anyone who’s seen the film will know, the story deals with the dark matter of fraticide and grief, but there’s also light relief in joyous comedy moments.

Matthew Forbes is a masterclass in physical acting as Zazu, his fluid movements flowing perfectly with his avian puppet. He’s delightfully rib tickling too and gets some of the best one-liners in the show – there’s even some local references in there to Jacky White’s and the dark side that is Newcastle, a nice touch for the tour.

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Timon (Alan McHale) and Pumbaa (Carl Sanderson) are also loveable as the hapless meerkat and warthog, the unlikely duo who help Simba to accept his past.

Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London..  Credit Johan PerssonDisney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London..  Credit Johan Persson
Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London.. Credit Johan Persson

By Act 2, our hero cub has grown into his mane as adult Simba, played by Kyle Richardson who strikes a good balance between the playfulness of his character and strength as he assumes his rightful position as the head of the pride.

By his side is Nala, played by Nokwanda Khuzwayo, a fierce, determined and loyal lioness who more than holds her own in the Pride Lands as the males battle it out. Her rendition of Shadowland, one of the tracks written specifically for the musical, is one of the most beautiful moments in the show, the diaphanous costumes of the female lions billowing in a breeze you can’t even feel. It’s all very cleverly done, real theatrical magic.

Rafiki (Thandazile Soni) is also a standout performance vocally, another wise woman who ultimately guides Simba as he finds his feet.

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As you'd expect from mega brand Disney, no expense has been spared in this production.

It takes a village to create this mammoth spectacular each night, 150 people to be precise, with 50 bringing the story to life on stage with 232 puppets and 100 people more creating the magic backstage.

The Empire is one of the only theatres in the country big enough to take the show and the only North East date on the tour – catch this king of the musicals whilst you can.

:: Disney’s The Lion King is at Sunderland Empire until Saturday 6th May 2023