Note: The following review dates from this production's July 1999 run at the Barbican Theatre.
Just as Disney fires the first promotional salvo in advance of its latest profligate stage musical, who should come roaring into town but the original Lion King. Although the mighty Aslan, defender of Narnia, is clearly no match for Simba in the merchandising stakes, he could surely teach the cuddly cub something about potency. Not only is C.S. Lewis's furry hero a Christ-like upholder of the moral order, he's also nemesis of the forces of evil and protector of those scallywags Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund, in the perennial kids' favourite, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
If you're unfamiliar with Lewis's quasi-religious yarn, it features four Blitz kids who've been evacuated to a Scottish ancestral pile. Here they discover that the back of an old wardrobe leads to a strange land populated by mythical creatures, woodland animals and a White Witch. The latter keeps Narnia under perma-frost and runs the place on fear, ever-mindful of a prophecy that says her rule will be toppled by 'two sons of Adam, and two daughters of Eve'.
Under the direction of RSC supremo Adrian Noble, all four kids are played with jolly-hockey-sticks enthusiasm by grown-ups. William Mannering's Edmund, bewitched by Turkish Delight, and Rebecca Clarke's irrepressible Lucy are the most memorable roles. Patrice Naiambana gives Aslan an African tribal slant and adds leonine passion to the redemptive ending. Geoffrey Freshwater and Myra McFadyen's Mr and Mrs Beaver come across as an old-fashioned music hall turn, while Ian Hughes plays an enigmatic Mr Tumnus, the faun.
Shaun Davey and Adrian Mitchell have written eleven songs for the score, none of which should worry Andrew Lloyd-Webber overly much - they're a pleasantly forgettable collection of mediaeval-influenced melodies. Other minuses are Estelle Kohler's White Witch (more vampish than menacing), Ms Clarke's weak singing voice, which lets down an otherwise strong performance, and Aslan's lame flying sequence.
Unlike the National's production of Peter Pan, there are no magical metamorphoses from set to set, yet Anthony Ward's designs still make clever use of the stage area, with scenery popping up from trap doors or dropping from the flies. Christine Rowland's costumes are nicely imaginative too, especially the collection of grim-looking horned monsters.
But in the end it's Adrian Mitchell's dramatisation that shines out. Mitchell may have added the odd scene, but the action still flows nicely and keeps even the shortest attention spans gripped till the end. My 7-year old (a big C.S. Lewis fan) also informed me that it remained pretty faithful to the book version. I should imagine they'll still be staging re-runs of this long after Simba and Co have been pensioned off to the theme parks.