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BILLY SUTER IN LONDON (#1) (article first published : 2004-07-23)

The Mercury's Arts Editor Billy Suter has returned from a fortnight of theatre binging in London, where he saw nine top shows: five lavish musicals, two comedies and two dramas. He also had the pleasant surprise of being seated alongside writer Ben Elton and Queen members Brian May and John Deacon at one production. This is his report.

At around anything from 12 (about R144) to 45 (about R540) for a ticket, the price of theatre-going in London's West End remains an extravagance - especially for South Africans, for whom the long-limping Rand means having to multiply costs by almost 12. And to add insult to injury, 500ml of bottled water at interval cost me the equivalent of R18 at one London theatre, while a "buddy" bottle of Coke sold for nearly R50 at another. But the experience of attending a show in one of the many old, ornate theatres, all rich in history and awhirl with visibly excited patrons, is still tops on the must-do list during a visit to the British capital. And demand for tickets is as strong as ever, the must-visit British Theatre Museum, a stone's throw from Covent Garden in the West End and to which there is no entry fee, reporting record times for attendance.

As ever, tickets remain hard to get. And what a buzz theatre-going proves in this country, where not even a general lack of air conditioning amid the surprising humidity of a summer where the sun shines until 10pm, prevents crowds from flocking.

I was fortunate to secure complimentary tickets to nine top shows and the best of the best was unquestionably Disney's The Lion King, which is everything fans and the critics have said it is. Theatre-going simply does not get better, more extravagant or more enjoyable than this. Last October, this glorious production entered its fifth year at the Lyceum Theatre, noted as the venue at which John Lennon gave his final London concert. Gifted director-designer Julie Taymor has transformed Disney's phenomenally successful 1994 animated feature into a spectacular stage treat. The story of young lion cub Simba, as he struggles to accept responsibilities of adulthood and his destined role as king, has been totally reconceived for the stage.

Taymor, one of America's most innovative directors, has extensive experience staging epic theatre and opera productions, exploring classic myths through ritualised puppetry, mask and movement. She brings this same array of disciplines to The Lion King, the first musical she has directed in the commercial theatre. And her jaw-droppingly good achievements here led to her being the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony Award for best director of a musical. What elevates Taymor to an even higher pedestal is that she is also responsible for the inventive costumes used in the show - truly magnificent creations including scores of masks and puppets.

The show sparkles with highlights, not least among them being ingenius scenes involving fear and loss during a stampede, people cleverly dressed as plants and the slow disappearance of a giant lake to represent the onset of drought. The original score from the animated film has been expanded for the stage and now features 15 musical numbers. South African composer Lebo M, as well as writing new songs, has created an evocative blend of African rhythms and chorales, with additional material by Taymor and Mark Mancina. Elton John and Tim Rice have also added three new numbers to the five they wrote for the Oscar-winning score of the animated film. A company of 46 is led by 11 principals, standouts among whom are Richard Gauntlett as Timon, Howard Crossley as Pumbaa, Rob Edwards as Scar, Brian Makiwane as Simba, Alexia Facey as Nala and a delightful Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki.

The Lion King remains one of the most sought-after tickets in the history of the West End and is currently booking through to March 27. Some 3.5 million people have seen the London production, while 22 million have seen one of the nine productions worldwide. The Lion King is presented at The Lyceum Theatre every Tuesday to Saturday at 19h30, with matinees at 14h00 on Wednesdays and Saturdays and at 15h00 on Sundays. There are no Monday performances. For more information visit the website: www.thelionking.co.uk

As for the second best thing I saw in London recently? That would have to be the stage reimagining of another hit movie musical - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, originally a Roald Dahl book, then a 1968 film teaming Dick van Dyk and Sally Anne Howes. It's about the adventures of an unsuccessful inventor who rescues a derelict car and gives it magical properties. He then joins his two children and a woman called Truly Scrumptious to overthrow the kooky king and queen of the mythical kingdom of Vulgaria, a land that has outlawed all children.

This exuberant, colourful show is fantasmagorical, to quote a line from the production's title song, and is highly recommended for any family visiting London. The production pulls out all the stops when it comes to spectacle, the many memorable scenes including a full-sized, winged car hovering over the audience's heads against a sky of stars and cleverly conceiled hydraulics. Also of note are the Toot Sweets song-and-dance showstopper in a candy factory, complete with the arrival of several live dogs; scenes involving a menacing Child Catcher on the prowl for children in a toy shop; and the magical car sprouting a waterbed to float on a sea, conjured by clever lighting, while escaping shots from a ship's cannon.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is staged at the London Palladium on Tuesdays (19h00), Wednesday to Saturday (19h30) and at 14h30 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Aussie and former pop hunk Jason Donovan is set to join the cast in September. Visit the website at www.chittythemusical.co.uk

This report continues in Part Two.




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