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The Lion at Southwark Playhouse – review

Benjamin Scheuer's award-winning solo piece, now performed by Max Alexander-Taylor, runs until 25 June

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Max Alexander-Taylor in The Lion
© Pamela Raith

Musical theatre can be a notoriously bombastic art form: even the wonderful humans of Gander get to belt and stomp their hearts out in the eternally popular Come From Away. It's both a surprise and a joy then to re-encounter Benjamin Scheuer's spellbinding autobiographical musical The Lion, in a beautifully calibrated new staging by Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels.

This is a show that captivates by stealth, starting out chummy and informal as guitar-wielding solo performer Max Alexander-Taylor (as Scheuer) works the room while the audience files in, before launching into a cute, folky number about how his Dad introduced him to the joy of music. By the end of its 75-minute playing time, we'll have learnt about his sometimes fractious family relationships, his unresolved feelings towards his now-deceased father, and, most shatteringly, Scheuer's own chronic cancer diagnosis before the age of 30. It's powerful stuff but delivered and presented with a lightness of touch that complements, rather than subverts, the gravitas of the story. There are as many laughs as there are tears, and the apparently loose-leafed structure belies a rigorous and intelligent approach to storytelling that means that not a single word or musical note feels extraneous.

Scheuer originally performed The Lion himself back in 2014 and, as somebody lucky enough to see him in his first London run at The Other Palace, I did question the wisdom of reviving it with a different actor-singer-musician telling this deeply personal story. Danielle Tarento is one of the most instinctive producers in the industry, however, and it's smashing to be proved so utterly wrong. Alexander-Taylor is astonishingly good, musically and dramatically. Instantly likeable, and bearing a passing resemblance to the real Ben, he inhabits every part of Scheuer's story, from precocious schoolboy, to terrified, chemo-compromised husk. It's impossible not to root for him, and the moment he learns he is cancer-free (this isn't a spoiler, the real Scheuer was magnificently in attendance at press night) is one of the most breathtakingly moving moments on any current London stage.

This is a star-making performance but one that wears its own bravura with such insouciance (he plays five guitars, has flawless comic timing but also the ability to break your heart with his emotional openness) that you almost don't realise just how brilliant Alexander-Taylor is until you're on your feet at the end with tears pouring down your face, roaring your approval. Anybody who saw the show first time around may initially be taken aback at Alexander-Taylor's British accent but Scheuer's Anglo-American heritage, discussed in the script, explains this.

Simon Kenny's woody boho-chic set is a delight, as is the extraordinarily sensitive lighting by Emma Chapman. The folk-infused songs are liltingly melodic but deceptively potent, and musical supervisor Jordan Li-Smith ensures that the balance between spontaneity and drama is exquisitely struck.

Seeing The Lion performed by somebody other than Scheuer actually reinforces the universality of its themes: we'll all pine with regret for family members we fell out with and never reconciled with, we'll all misunderstand our parents, fall in love, and many of us will experience the horror of a life-threatening illness. For a show that doesn't pull any punches, this is an incredibly life-affirming theatrical experience. I suspect that, when word spreads, this will become a very hot ticket all over again. It certainly deserves to. Go, see, feel, weep and wallow…it's a little masterpiece.