Review: The Lion King at Wales Millennium Centre

John DaviesCreative, Culture, Reviews

Set against the majesty of the Serengeti Plains and to the evocative rhythms of Africa, Disney’s The Lion King is a worldwide theatrical phenomenon.

Wow. Just wow! The Lion King is a ‘walk-on-the-wild-side’ wonder.

You already get a feeling that this is a serious deal, knowing that The Lion King is at Wales Millennium Centre for over seven weeks. Anticipation is in the air in the welcome foyers, and children and adults alike, some even donned in Lion King clothing and merchandise, are visibly excited to take their seats in the Donald Gordon Theatre.

The opening really does set the scene for the rest of the show, as the audience was treated to a real feast for senses. Elephants, hippos, antelope and more poured into aisles of the stall seats, as audience members were transported to the Serengeti. Rafiki, shaman of the Pridelands, played most wonderfully by Thandazile Soni, enters as each animal takes from the stalls to the stage. Elton John’s ‘The Circle of Life’ comes to full crescendo, Pride Rock swings into view, and Mufasa (Jean-Luc Guizonne) and Sarabi (Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy) present their newly born cub, young Simba, to the jubilant audience.

Such an opening ensured there were goosebumps from the outset. And as the show progressed, we were told tales of family and love, of betrayal and death, and Simba’s coming-of-age story, as he realises his rightful place as king, in the circle of life. Along the way, we meet Zazu (played by the very dextrous Matthew Forbes) who is the king’s trusted advisor. We also meet Simba’s uncle, Scar (Richard Hurst) who is the show’s prime villain, and delivered some electric performances, with particular mention to ‘Be Prepared’. And he is accompanied by his three accomplices – three horrifying, yet oddly hilarious, hyenas (Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder, and local-lad Owain Rhys Davies).

And finally, as Act 1 comes to a close, we meet Timon (Alan McHale) and Pumbaa (Carl Sanderson) – the classic double-act – as they give the audience one of the most highly-anticipated songs ‘Hakuna Matata’. Simba is forced out of the Pridelands and he buddies up with them both to create the most unlikely trio. The show’s most hilarious lines are delivered by these two, and it ensures that children remain completely entranced for the whole show. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a joke about standing down-wind to a warthog.

In Act 2, following a short 15-minute interval, we see Simba grow up (as an adult played by Stephenson Ardern-Sodje). He initially rejects the idea of returning home, but a chance scuffle between himself and childhood lover Nala (as an adult played by Nokwanda Khuzwayo) reignites a hiraeth inside him, and he is persuaded finally to return home, depose his uncle Scar and take his rightful place as king.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Elton John’s songs, which we’ll probably all remember from the Disney animated film, but there are also some additional songs that really add to the overall spectacle. A particular favourite for us was ‘They Live in You’, which is reprised several times during the course.

We must also comment on the spectacular puppetry, and there are 232 puppets in total, and we adored how each animal was brought to life in different ways by the actors. It really is a true accomplishment, and a wonder to see.

It was truly wonderful as well to hear some of the indigenous languages of Africa on the stage, so fluidly mixed in with English, and even a few small instances of Welsh. Fact, that an audience can be entertained trilingually.

All in all, a fantastic show, which you must add to your list of things to do this summer.

The Lion King is on at Wales Millennium Centre 8 July – 27 August 2022. Tickets from £22.50 available online here or from the Wales Millennium Centre Box Office.

Credit: Johan Persson