WITH February’s named storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge still in recent memory, and before any potential prohibition of public gatherings courtesy of the rapidly spreading Corvid-19 Coronavirus, there has been a window of opportunity for much-needed respite. Kings Ely Junior filled this space with the energy and joy that young people are so good at.
Crucial though these are, such qualities alone do not make for a successful show. However, in the extremely competent hands of Kathryn Sudbury (Director), Musical Directors, Nicki Sivier and Helen Briggs, and Choreographer, Natasha Hobbs, youthful energy was harnessed to genuine dramatic and musical discipline. The result was an unforgettable evening of sheer exuberance and enjoyment.
It helps, of course, to have a show with music and lyrics principally by Elton John and Tim Rice. Disney stipulate that their own soundtrack must be used, so all credit to the perfect timing of cues by the student sound crew (Alex Hood Year 13, Lydia Hamilton-Bing Year 12, Leo Good and Paolo Lawrence, both Year 8). Similarly impressive were the Year 8 Lighting and Music Crew, Mary Garrod and Sophie Parsons, under Technical Director, James Lane’s expert guidance.
The lighting was a great mood enhancer. Intense and vibrant oranges, yellows, purples and greens gave the contrasting blue of night or the grey-brown of Scar’s devastation a greater emphasis. Such effects allowed minimum props (other than hand-held) and maximum use of the stage for the large numbers of dancers. To the side of the stage was the imposing, iconic rock from which the pronouncements were made and the new cub prince (an adorable teddy bear) introduced to the kingdom, as generation succeeded to generation. The flats and sides of the stage were painted in effective African patterns which perfectly contributed to the whole production.
‘Other than hand-held’ above sounds dismissive, but it really is not. The props were characters in their own right and an immense achievement for Laura Dixon, who was assisted by Adella Charlton. Apart from a gory zebra’s leg bone or a seat, the stage was filled with animals in magnificent costumes or headdresses, graceful birds and impala on sticks, giraffes on stilts, boughs of greenery – all of which were personally managed and will have required highly efficient back-stage management and individual discipline. And all that make-up and face-painting must have taken ages – no wonder performers were milling around at the end reluctant to remove it! The dancing was superb: impressively energetic, accurate and in keeping with the different groups’ characters and emotions. Added to which, the performers were singing often difficult music which they made sound easy, and often in Zulu, Swahili or Xhosa.
From the outset, Hetty Guyer as the monkey, Rafiki, was in charge of proceedings. With the bearing and appearance of a high priestess, she looked impressive with her golden staff of authority and dressed in African prints; she moved sinuously and sang with clarity, absolutely in tune and in character. As someone with a natural stage presence, she was perfectly cast: one to watch whatever her role in future productions.
The lion king, Mufasa, was performed sensitively by Gracie Livingstone-Bond. She was gracious and calmly majestic. Her fierceness and authority when occasion called for them was a little underplayed, but she was a perfect foil to Scar’s ruthless interpretation of kingship. Libby Hills was Mustafa’s consort Sarabi, Simba’s mother, gentle and feminine, as befitted her role. Along with Sarafina (Lotty Hemingway-Stark), the mother of Nala – childhood friend of Simba – the pair were perfectly matched as the senior members of the pride, who together with other lionesses looked as photogenic as any National Geographic magazine could wish! However, they showed their mettle in rallying the pride at the end after Scar had usurped the kingdom and laid waste the grazing lands.
Scar was a splendid villain, played with appropriate relish by Sophia Garrard. Crafty, malevolent, jealous, power-hungry, this was a role that could have been mis-judged. However, Sophia stood strong against all the ‘good’, endearing, funny, graceful characters that might have stolen her thunder. The text does not allow for much subtlety in Scar’s portrayal, unlike Claudius in Hamlet on which the plot up until the show’s happy ending is based. Similarly, the text in this version did not make Scar’s confession very clear. However, the audience was not concerned with plot niceties by this stage and Scar came to his timely end.
Scar was not the only ‘baddy’. There was a wonderful pack of laughing Hyenas led by Ed (Tallulah Bruce), Banzai (Emily Freeman) and Shenzi (Edith Thompson). They cackled and giggled in high-pitched voices, initially funny, quickly menacing, scampering and moving around on their haunches with great agility, despite their black costumes of large pointed ears, big eyes and sharp, bared fangs. An appropriate private army for Scar.
Other magnificent groups of dancers/singers were the Lionesses, the Wildebeests, the Stars, the Animal Ensemble, the Grasslands and the Jungle. The Gazelle (Zion Noble) who was killed in the dramatic stampede of wildebeests was also to be found (aptly!) amongst the Stars, and several other names appeared on the programme in not just two but three different groups. It is a trademark of King’s Ely’s Drama Department that actors are trained to be versatile; they start them young!
So to young Simba, Zach Hatton. He looked the part, sounded the part and performed the part with the boundless bounciness and confidence that was demanded of this delightful lion cub. Energetic and impulsive, he never lost his appealing childishness until the inevitable approach of adolescence when new doubts and seriousness trickled into his consciousness. Cue, during the dance number “Hakuna Matata”, the slipping away of young (cub) Simba and imperceptible easing in of the older Simba played by Finlay Beeton. Of taller but similar build and equipped with a young adult’s brain, he becomes aware that his childhood playmate, Nala (Eve Kittoe), (now taken over by her sister Nell Kittoe) has become more than a gambolling playmate, while her early kindly, more cautious nature has grown to be strong in braving danger to appeal to Simba to return, and as serene as Sarabi, her mother. The famous duet “Can you feel the love tonight” was not embarrassing or saccharinely schmaltzy but as tender as the moment demanded. The circle of life was turning, as it should.
Finally, a word about the comedy. Strong performances came from Alexander New as Zazu the pompous, self-important but good-hearted Dodo, and from Alexander Sturman as Timon (the meerkat) and Aidan Meikle as Pumba (the warthog). They all had superb comic timing, both in action and delivery, and were a delight to watch. Since some vigour is intrinsic to comedy and effort is entailed in friendship, Timon and Pumba were already unwitting anomalies in their enticingly easy-going country, for all their mantra of “hakuna matata”. More than just a comic interlude, extremely funny though it was, they showed loyalty and friendship above self-indulgence when they left their lotus-eating land to support Simba in his dangerous bid to recover the kingdom. Theirs was an important contribution to the drama as a whole.
All in all, a magnificent show where every single participant both on and off stage contributed with cheerful energy. The audience left with a spring in their step and broad smiles on their faces. Well done to you all!