Theatre Preview: The Lion King, The Playhouse

Lisa McLean. Pic: Greg Macvean
Lisa McLean. Pic: Greg Macvean
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MORE than 70 million people have now seen The Lion King. As one of them, it’s hard to argue with Disney’s description of the musical.

It is “a visual feast that explodes with glorious colours,” mostly yellows, reds, and burnt ochres; and it does boast “stunning effects,” the puppetry being simply jaw-dropping; finally, the music really is “enchanting.” Not least due to Elton John’s romantic anthem, Can You Feel The Love Tonight.

In short, Disney’s The Lion King is a glorious celebration of Africa and Mother Nature’s never-ending circle of life. It’s also theatre on a massive scale, and that applies off-stage as well as on.

The musical bounds into the Playhouse for its first preview on Friday. However, as you watch in awe as the animals of the Serengeti Plains are brought to life by a spectacularly talented cast, spare a thought for the army of personnel working every bit as hard behind the scenes - stage hands, musicians and technical operators, without whom, there would be no magic.

“It’s absolutely vast in terms of scale,” says one of those unsung heroes, Edinburgh-born assistant company manager Lisa McLean.

She’s right. Out of sight of the audience, the mechanics of The Lion King is a mammoth operation.

A crew of more than 90 bring the story of Simba, the wide-eyed lion cub who grows up to reclaim his rightful place as King of the Pridelands, to the stage. That includes a permanent 41-strong crew who tour with the company - as does a 12- piece orchestra

The Playhouse adds a further 24 crew members, comprising ten additional sound and lighting operators, 14 dressers to get the cast in and out of their costumes, two maintenance people, two wig and make-up assistants and one laundry person.

And that’s without mentioning the 40 ushers and managers who will be working front of house to ensure that audiences get to the correct seats in time for curtain up each evening.

Coincidentally, it was working front of house that McLean, who was raised in Marchmont, the daughter of an artist and granddaughter of an author, got her break into theatre. “My first job was ripping tickets at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London,” she laughs, recalling that there she “just talked to everybody I could, asking about the jobs that were available.

“By doing that I was offered my first back stage job - stage crew on the play Rock n Roll.” That job was the fulfilment of a dream for McLean, who first caught the theatre bug as a child.

“The arts were always a part of my life and, as a child, I loved musicals. I drove my family mad with reruns of the Wizard Of Oz and Annie. I was the only one that loved them that much, so it wasn’t until I was much older that I realised you could actually have a job in theatre.”

That finally dawned on the 32-year-old while at secondary school.

“I remember seeing Les Mis and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Playhouse in the 90s, but even then I had no thoughts of working in theatre.

“I couldn’t comprehend that it was possible to be part of something on that scale, even though I was involved with theatre and drama at school.

“When I came to see these shows, I was just absolutely mesmerised by their sheer scale.”

Gradually, McLean realised theatre was something she loved and, desperate to be a part of it, she went to university. A degree in theatre and film at Salford secured her that first ‘ticket-ripping’ job, and it all went from there.

Today, as assistant company manager on The Lion King, her responsibilities are many, from ensuring cast have digs, to making sure payments are made, and scheduling leave or understudies when someone goes off. Everything is run with military precision.

“We look after the needs of the show as whole, as the job of a company manager is very broad. Scheduling and planning; checking in with the cast and making sure that every thing is ready for the next performance.

“It’s different from day to day. It’s quite diverse and it’s fast-paced but it’s also fun and exciting.”

Although normally out of sight of the public, there is a rare chance for eagle-eyed theatre-goers to catch a glimpse of McLean each night.

“Often, I can be spotted front of house at about 7.25pm, sending the show up,” she says. If you spot her, you might even get a sneak preview of one of the big numbers.

As the story of Simba unfolds, “I find myself singing along everywhere,” she laughs.

The Lion King, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, Friday-18 January 2014, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £25-£75, 0844-871 3014