After 12 years, The Lion King is still playing to packed houses and the Disney juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. It has its detractors, but as West End family entertainment goes it’s still very hard to beat.

My problems with it have always centred on the book. It feels as if the producers got so sidetracked with the game-changing masks, costumes and sets that they completely forgot to commission an original script, so asked an intern to transcribe the film instead. Familiar gags proliferate - “getting your lions crossed”, “put your behind in your past” etc - and are delivered with an almost palpable weariness.

Another of my bugbears - the dreadful aerial dance sequence in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” - has now been shelved, as has Zazu’s lame “Morning Report” song in the first act. These cuts are welcome, and mean the (largely young) audience can now leave the Lyceum before 10.30pm.

Julie Taymor's star may have dimmed recently after the chaos of Spider-Man, but her landmark production still boasts the finest mise-en-scène in the West End, and music to make the spine tingle. Most of the stand-out numbers, including “One by One”, “Shadowland” and “Endless Night”, were written specially for the stage, and express most fully the show’s African roots.

The current cast - led by Shaun Escoffery (Mufasa), George Asprey (Scar), Andile Gumbi (Simba) and Ava Brennan (Nala) - is the strongest I’ve seen, and the production feels well maintained and as fresh as it can be after more than a decade.

Last night’s performance - the show’s 5000th - ended with a curtain call appearance from lyricist Tim Rice (no sign of Elton though), and more confetti than an Olympics opening ceremony. Debates about the merits of long-running shows will continue, but it’s difficult to argue with a blockbuster that continues to prove that big budgets and high artistry, unlike lions and hyenas, can coexist peacefully. 

- Theo Bosanquet


Note: The following review dates from October 1999, and this production's premiere at the Lyceum

If Florenz Ziegfeld teamed up with PT Barnum, he couldn't have created a more eye-popping opening than The Lion King's "Circle of Life" number. Pride Rock spirals majestically up from centre stage with Rafiki holding the young cub aloft, while bounding antelopes, fluttering storks, stilt-legged giraffes, and even an 11-foot elephant, all assemble to pay homage.

While it takes Disney bucks to mount extravaganzas like this - allegedly around £6.5 million - much credit has to go to director Julie Taymor, for her remarkable vision. This involves taking the tale back to its African roots to re-invent the look, acting and music of the entire production.

Never has the Dark Continent seemed so colourful and vibrant. Richard Hudson's designs utilise tribal motifs (causing Paul Baker's Zazu to jest that the drapes 'look like Ikea shower curtains'), savannah grasses and palm fronds engage in Garth Fagan's balletic routines, and rainbow-hued singers dangle birds of paradise from 30-foot poles.

Tim Rice and Elton John's Academy award-winning music and lyrics, too, have been augmented by exotic new material by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer. This adds up to a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from kiddie-pop ('I Just Can't Wait To Be King') to the African-influenced ('Shadowland'). Appealing though this trans-cultural mix is, it doesn't seem to hang together quite as well as Ashman and Menken's superior score for Beauty and the Beast.

Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's book, with its panto-quality gags and prodigal son storyline, is probably the least changed element of the show, staying close to the original screenplay. This follows Simba's exile after his father Mufasa's (Cornell John) death, and triumphant return to defeat Scar and reclaim his role as King of the Jungle.

Roger Wright as the grown-up Simba is sleek and muscular, though not particularly powerful on the vocal front . Simon Gregor's deftly manipulated Timon puppet and Martyn Ellis's flatulent Pumbaa are an engaging comic duo. But Rob Edwards's limp-pawed Scar is a let-down, being too camp to be truly menacing.

Still, you don't go to this one to marvel at the acting any more than you jump on a Disney theme park ride just to enjoy the engineering. It's the sum of the parts that count here, and The Lion King successfully marries visuals, music and story to create as breathtaking a spectacle as you're likely to see in a West End theatre.

Richard Forrest