29th October 1999 at 01:00
It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. My friend Tracey and I fought our way through ranks of celebs and paparazzi blocking the red-carpeted entrance to the Lyceum Theatre where the gala performance of The Lion King was about to begin. Lulu, Shirley Bassey and co had, rather boringly, come in silks and feathers. Tracey and I, having sped directly from The TES offices, were sporting nice, sensible trousers.

But there wasn't much of a case for looking at the audience once the curtain rose. Josette Bushell-Mingo as Rafiki, the baboon-cum-witchdoctor, looked spectacular in her red, yellow and blue make-up, her costume decorated with talismans. Her first few bars of unaccompanied Zulu music were enough to make your hair stand on end. And then the show really began: an elephant-sized elephant made of wicker and cloth processed down the aisle in the company of giraffes, deer, zebras, a panther and a jungle-full of animals. But the really exciting thing was that they were also recognisably human. At last, the multi-million pound end of the theatre business has realised that its strength lies not in aping the high-tech effects of film, but in exciting the audience's imagination.

Julie Taymor, director and costume-designer, must take the credit for The Lion King's success; the combination of masks, puppets, stiltwalkers and brilliant but simple tricks is breathtaking. The wildebeest stampede, where the animals appear to gallop towards the audience (they are on rollers) is a wonderfully theatrical effect. The music (by Elton John and others) is so-so - although the African chants by Lebo M are terrific - and the incidental humour is full of puerile puns.

The story is said to be related to the plot of Hamlet. Maybe. Mufasa (a stately Cornell John), king of the lions, is killed by his wicked brother, Scar (Rob Edwards, whingeing and cringing convincingly), who seizes the kingdom from the boy Simba. Years later, Simba returns to claim his inheritance and restore peace and happiness to Pride Rock. If you can get a ticket, feast your eyes. Tel: 0870 243 9000.

The National Gallery is offering an especially sumptuous visual feast in Renaissance Florence: the art of the 1470s. Lorenzo de'Medici presided over a powerful city state in which the arts expressed status and power. Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Leonardo da Vinci, Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio were all active in the city during this crucial period, and examples of their work have been borrowed from all over the world to add to the gallery's own holdings.

Here, for instance, is Botticelli's "Portrait of Giuliano de'Medici", from Washington DC. Giuliano, Lorenzo's brother, was killed at the age of 25. The turtle dove on the windowsill indicates mourning, suggesting the portrait was painted posthumously.

Here too is Verrocchio's famous "Madonna and Child", known as the Ruskin Madonna, from the National Gallery of Scotland. It provides an outstanding example of perspective. Verrocchio was a teacher whose workshop developed new techniques of drawing, especially the swift strokes necessary to catch a baby's movement. There are examples in the exhibition of drawings minutely pricked so that, with the application of charcoal to the outline, they could be exactly reproduced.

The camera was a bedroom which also served as a reception room, and several beautiful objects for such a room, including decorated chests, have been gathered together in the final part of the exhibition. Botticelli's "Venus and Mars", technically just outside the relevant decade, may have been the back-board of a chest and appears here in full splendour. There are lectures on sculpture and painting in November and a study day on January 15, 2000. For group bookings of 12 or more, including slide lecture, phone 020 7747 2888.

The Children's Music Workshop, which specialises in taking professional musicians into schools, is celebrating its tenth birthday. Leonora Davies, doyenne of schools music, took the opportunity at the party to reiterate the case for the arts, not only in the curriculum but within the school day.

She acknowledged that primary music could be patchy and that literacy and numeracy were important. Nevertheless, we must, she said, educate the whole child; there was no greater gift from education than the development of self-esteem and confidence. For information about the Children's Music Workshop, call 0171 607 6454.

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