The Lion King: An interview with Kayi Ushe, Simba in the reopening West End show
After what feels like an eternity away from the stage, the roaring musical The Lion King has a reopening date. Calendars at the ready – the heartwarming Disney success is set to return to the Lyceum Theatre on 29th July 2021. And if this wasn’t already an update to brighten the day, 14 new members will join the international cast of over 50 performers. The iconic role of Simba is about to receive a makeover from Kayi Ushe. His name is likely to ring a bell as the thespian Londoner already has impressive West End appearances under his belt. However, one runs the risk of not recognising him straight away because of the missing wig and wheels, essential in his last appearance as Lola in Kinky Boots, which toured extensively just before the pandemic called curtains.
The childhood dream of performing in The Lion King, and especially as the lead, is only the start of what the role means for the young Kayi. We caught up with him to talk about the beginning of his passion for theatre, his first memories of The Circle of Life, and getting ready to take on the West End sensation.
Hi Kayi, thank you for your time and congratulations on the role! How does it feel to begin this new adventure, especially after such a long winter for theatres?
No problem, thank you for having me! It feels exciting. I’ve wanted to do this role for such a long time and so to come out of this hiatus into a dream role is such a gift.
How have you survived this period away from the stage?
Quizzes – lots of lockdown Zoom quizzes! But also outside of theatre I do a bit of voiceover work, and so while we’ve been kept from performing on stage I’ve busied myself with voiceover. I love it.
What is your first memory of The Lion King? Can you remember when you watched it for the first time?
I don’t recall the first time I watched the 1994 animated original, but I remember watching it over and over as a child. It was one of my absolute favourite films growing up.
I do, however, remember my first time watching the show on the West End, and being immersed in such glorious creativity. I had goosebumps as soon as The Circle of Life started. Rafiki and all the animals breathing life into the Pride Lands in the opening of the show and all culminating in that iconic beat that closes the number?! I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about it.
If you had to describe how your Simba will look and sound, what would your three key adjectives be?
I honestly couldn’t say! But I hope powerful, relatable and honest.
What is your favourite scene and song?
Shadowlands – the song that adult Nala sings – is so beautiful. It casts such a spotlight on her journey and the responsibility she has and feels. Also the moment between Simba and Mufasa in the sky. There’s so much to choose from!
How are you preparing for the role?
If you follow me on Instagram you’re probably sick of all the exercise videos I post on my stories! I’m training as much as I can in order to be physically fit and ready. It has been too long since I’ve been on stage, so I’m doing as much as is within my power so that, when we start rehearsals, I’m ready.
What has the biggest challenge been, so far?
The biggest challenge so far has been waiting to get started. Imagine having a buffet of your favourite foods laid out in front of you and being unable to take a bite. We’ve all been starved of the theatrical experience for so long – I just want to take a bite.
What do you think makes The Lion King successful after such a long run on the West End and worldwide?
I think it can be attributed in part to its universal appeal, timeless themes and incredible attention to detail. There is truly something for everyone in this show. The themes are so relatable and the detail – right down to the texture of the puppets – is truly something to marvel at.
When did you decide to work in the theatre industry? And how did you start your professional career on stage?
I knew I wanted to work in theatre when my GCSE drama class took a trip to watch Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre and I felt uncomfortable. I really enjoyed the show, but I felt like I wanted to be up there. Of course, though, being a teenager, I identified it purely as discomfort. But I thought about it and then I knew. I actually only took drama because the IT course was full!
As for starting my professional career, I graduated from Brunel University with the intention to go to drama school. But before heading to drama school I wanted to be sure I knew what I needed to focus on if I got in. So I took myself to open auditions listed in The Stage newspaper. I made many mistakes and learned a great deal. But through those open auditions I was introduced to my then agent and got cast in Fame. I found myself working on my first professional engagement and have been learning on the job ever since.
Who is your role model or inspiration?
Robin Williams has always been an inspiration for me. I found his character work and limitless creativity to be so impressive. It was a dream of mine to work with him. Watching him when growing up I found myself marvelling at his ability to manipulate his voice, and before long found myself imitating him and discovering characters within myself.
Where would you love to perform around the world?
Ooh that’s a tough one. I’d love to perform in Japan. I’ve always been enamoured by the culture, and so getting to perform there would be wonderful.
Just before the lockdown you had finished touring as Lola, in Kinky Boots. What were the highlights of that experience for you?
Performing as Lola was truly a life-enriching experience. I’d never worn heels, corsets, drag makeup or such glamorous wigs and dresses before in my life. It was a learning curve for sure.
One of the highlights of doing such a show was the amount of people I met, to whom Lola gave the strength to be themselves and live their truth. I remember a mother in Nottingham brought her son who loved to wear dresses to see the show. And he felt so empowered by the show that he came wearing a dress for the first time out of the house. It was such a powerful reminder of why we do what we do.
You already have some impressive West End productions on your CV. Is there a role that is particularly dear to you, and why?
Ghali, my ensemble character in The Book of Mormon, will always be special to me, as it was my first West End credit and that track was a lot of fun. But honestly this one, Simba, means the world to me – and not least of all because my little brother is actually named Masimba. It’s a moment that has been many years in the making for me and I intend to make the most of it.
What would your advice be for young actors starting now?
Dream big, make good choices, trust your own journey. Oh and stick with it. There will be ups, there will be downs (there may even be pandemics) – but we move.
Photo: James Everett
The Lion King reopens with the new cast at the Lyceum Theatre on 29th July 2021. For further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for The Lion King stage show here: