The Lion King musical returns to Manchester's Palace Theatre for five month run

Words and video report by Will Tullis, ITV News

The Lion King has returned to the Palace Theatre and this year features some references to Manchester and Salford.

The hit Disney musical will be in Manchester for five months until March 2023 and more than 200,000 tickets have already been sold.

The show, which has won six Tony awards, was meant to return to the city in 2020 before the pandemic closed theatres across the country.

Listen to Unscripted, the ITV News Entertainment podcast

The Lion King is set in the African Pridelands but this year's production at the Palace Theatre features a few references to Manchester and Salford.

"Every city we try to tweak the show a little bit... I get in a few local specific jokes", said Matthew Forbes, who plays Zazu.

"We play a lot here on the rivalry between Manchester and Salford and the audience seem to absolutely lap it up, they seem to love it."

"The Manchester audience is probably the best... they're so up for it and they make you feel like a rockstar", Matthew, who operates one of the 232 puppets in the show, added.

Matthew Forbes, who plays Zazu, says this show plays on 'the rivalry' between Manchester and Salford.

This production - which was last at the Palace Theatre in 2015 - also features talent from the North West. Francesca Thompson, from Manchester, will take the stage as an ensemble cast member.

"My family has seen the show about three or four times now in different cities", the Northern Ballet School graduate said.

"But now we're in Manchester I know they'll definitely want to come back home and see me in this show here, so it will be a special moment that we're all back in Manchester together", she continued.

The Manchester-born ballet dancer and performer praised the city's audiences for their energy.

"For me personally I do think Northerners are a lot more energetic, a lot more vibrant...there's a lot more laughter in the audience.

"It's just a different energy and a different buzz in Manchester. We bring a good energy.", she said.

Manchester-born Francesca Thompson told ITV News that playing in front of a home crowd is a special feeling.

Stephenson Ardern-Sodje plays the lead role of Simba this year. The actor - who used to live in Manchester - said that being back on stage after Covid postponed the show's opening has made this run of performances even more special.

"It's so great to be's an unbelievable feeling", he said.

"I used to live in Manchester for three years and it's really lovely to come back, it feels like coming home.

"It's an amazing city it has such a vibrant culture and such a strong sense of community, especially at Christmas it's such a beautiful place to be."

More than 16 million theatre-goers have seen The Lion King in the UK since it opened in London in 1999. That number is set to grow even higher as the show comes roaring back to Manchester.