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The Lion at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Ben (Max Alexander-Taylor) isn’t the first person to have had a difficult relationship with his father – the lack of communication between them is reminiscent of the Mike + The Mechanics torch song ‘The Living Years’. The Lion, a show that draws its title from the sole on-stage character’s wish to – wait for it – find his roar, works well in a space so intimate the Southwark Playhouse calls it ‘The Little’. It’s also a show that bucks the trend of presenting a narrative where everything is going reasonably fine, until such time as a very significant event comes out of nowhere and puts the story on an irreversibly different trajectory.

The Lion. Pamela Raith Photography.
The Lion. Pamela Raith Photography.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a life-changing moment: the story was originally performed off-Broadway by its writer, Benjamin Scheuer (pronounced ‘Shoy-ur’), as an autobiographical musical, and being told by a doctor he has stage four cancer, especially when it’s something that actually happened, ranks pretty highly as a shocking and unexpected piece of news. Then again, the audience is told so much about Ben’s life up to that point that by the time the storyline reaches the diagnosis, it is crystal clear that this tale is being told in retrospect. This isn’t one of those weird shows where the narrator tells their story from beyond the grave.

Indeed, it doesn’t feel as though there’s anything out of the ordinary at all here, apart from some extraordinary musical talent: several guitars line the back of the stage, and Ben gets through all of them, even if all except one are acoustic. The story starts rather sweetly, with much pleasure derived from Ben discovering the joy of music from his father’s singing and guitar playing. Dad had even made a toy banjo for him. The teenage years beckoned, although it was his father who was increasingly prone to angry outbursts. Even so, “I was a very dramatic 14-year-old,” Ben muses.

The anecdotes flow through both song and spoken word, and there are more details divulged in this show in one act than some shows manage in two (or even five). Alexander-Taylor’s Ben uses the available stage space to its fullest extent, and engages the audience throughout with direct addresses (okay, fine, who else is he going to talk to?) and eye contact. He has a way of telling his story as though I were the only other person in the room.

It helps, too, that there is a gentle sense of humour peppering proceedings (“You make me laugh with your impression of a friendly pterodactyl’s mating sound” was one of the most unusual pickup lines I’ve ever come across). It’s used both as a coping strategy to help Ben get through various struggles in his life and as comic relief from some highly pertinent and challenging themes. Guitars aside, the stage is relatively uncluttered, allowing the production to rely on the art of storytelling. It would, technically, be possible to have a set that transforms from, say, a New York City apartment to a live music venue, but such additions would only slow a reasonably brisk narrative down. Part of the show’s appeal is that it is so focused and straight to the point, punchy but never melodramatic.

At one point, the shoes and socks come off, perhaps a metaphorical image of a man opening up but only just a little. The songs are mostly folk-styled, with just a couple of rock tunes, giving the show a significantly subtler feel overall than most musicals. Overall, at the end of the day, it works. Okay, so some of the lyrics are a little too repetitive for my liking but in the end, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by such a charming and captivating performance.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Lion is a one-man folk musical telling a true story of survival. With a guitar in hand, Ben confronts his turbulent life’s journey from a rift in his childhood to his own brush with mortality. During 70 minutes of songs, monologues and virtuosic guitar playing, Ben tells an inspiring story of love, loss, despair and hope that reminds us how, even in our darkest moments, music, family and community can help us find our true voice and the strength to ‘Weather the Storm’.

This production is the first revival of Benjamin Scheuer’s Drama Desk Award-winning autobiographical show, with Max Alexander-Taylor playing the role of Ben.

The Company
Max Alexander-Taylor
Directors Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels
Musical Supervisor Jordan Li-Smith
Set & Costume Designer Simon Kenny
Lighting Designer Emma Chapman
Sound Designer Andrew Johnson

DANIELLE TARENTO IN ASSOCIATION WITH ARIZONA THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS
THE LION
BOOK, MUSIC & LYRICS BY BENJAMIN SCHEUER
25 MAY – 25 JUN 2022
https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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