A very special one-man show has returned to London to herald in a new era for the show. Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical folk musical The Lion began life in 2014, predominantly across coffee shops in New York. Since then, he performed the show more than 500 times across the US and UK, with its success leading to a filmed performance and an album of songs from the show. Now, he is stepping aside to let somebody else tell his story for the first time – but could it possibly have the same impact performed by somebody else?
Step forward, Max Alexander-Taylor who plays the role of Ben. Welcoming the audience as they enter the theatre and mingling around chatting before the performance starts, this production removes all perceived barriers, creating as intimate a piece of theatre as it gets and allowing you to really feel when the switch is flicked and Max becomes Ben on stage. An inspired touch and one that pays off in a big way.
Over the course of the next 70 minutes, Max gives a phenomenal performance as Ben. Taking us on a journey through childhood to adulthood, Max oozes charm, giving a charismatic, sensitive and authentic performance. Effortlessly moving through complicated emotions with a real sense of anger and fear, this really is one of the greatest feats of acting I have seen in the theatre in a long time.
The folk-inspired music is solely penned by Benjamin Scheuer. Kicking off with the charming ‘Cookie-tin Banjo’, the level never drops throughout the show with fantastic song after fantastic song. From the literally joyful sound of ‘Laugh’ to the emotional ‘Dear Dad’, every song is a real winner with ‘Weather The Storm’ at undoubted standout. Performed beautifully by Max, showcasing a gorgeous voice, these interpretations add to the legacy of the songs which have already got their own legion of fans.
The story itself takes you on a journey through some difficult situations – from the loss of Bens father and the feelings that stirs up inside of him through to his own brush with mortality after being diagnosed with cancer. This raw story isn’t the easiest of watches due to its subject matter, but it is a true reflection on the fragility of life. If the power of theatre is its ability to make you feel, The Lion does this better than most. Whether it was down to similarities to my own story, I had a lump in my throat at times through the show, but all the while appreciated how glorious this art of storytelling truly was.
Produced by Danielle Tarento in association with Arizona Theatre Company, this production makes clever use of its intimate space. Transforming The Little at Southwark Playhouse, the audience surrounds Max as he picks up his various guitars, pacing around the space. Effective set design from Simon Kenny, beautiful lighting from Emma Chapman and inspired direction from Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels elevates this production to something truly special.
The Lion is a show that will stay with me for a long time. A true testament to what theatre should be, this is an absolute masterclass in storytelling. Perhaps its impact on me is even greater given the events of the past couple of years. The fragility of life and the inspiring story of survival resonated with me in a way that not many shows are able to do on this level. Featuring an incredible songbook performed by a truly remarkable actor, this has to be one of the strongest shows of the year. If a lion is the king of the jungle, The Lion is a contender for king of the theatre.
The Lion is at Southwark Playhouse until June 25th. It is then on tour in July playing in St Albans, Swindon, Norwich and Hayes. Tickets for London available from https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Pamela Raith