Like the director of this fabulous production, I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was 12 years old. I got it as a prize for doing well in Latin, and thought it much better than anything by Julius Caesar. In fact, I was enchanted, and went on to read all the Narnia stories. Little did I foresee that, 60 years on, I would be reviewing an adaptation of this book on a London stage. But I found it just as captivating as when I first read through it with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.
That is not the reason, however, why I think this must be the best of all the many excellent shows I have seen at Wimbledon. It simply drips with atmosphere throughout. The stagecraft is amazing from the very start, when the four children are evacuated by train from London to Scotland in 1939. The night train travels across the stage in a way that is amazingly realistic as well as obviously contrived. The same goes for all the subsequent scenes, particularly when the children pass from a gloomy mansion in dank Scotland, and through a large wardrobe which they have investigated in a spare bedroom, and out the back into a winter wonderland of talking animals, a wicked witch and unfulfilled prophecy. Some dazzling effects are produced, both visual, as when the White Witch levitates above the stage amid a flurry of snowflakes, and aural, as when the musicians wander onto the stage like minstrels, playing their instruments, and the air is filled with the sweetest harmonies. The songs have a Celtic feel to them, as befits a setting amidst fauns and fairies.
There is an amusing addition to the story which was not there when I first read it, not that I would have heard about quantum mechanics at the time. A character called Professor Schrödinger lives with his cat in the Scottish mansion to which the children have been evacuated. Of course, it would come as no surprise to a quantum physicist to learn that here was an alternative world at the back of his wardrobe.
I never suspected, as a child, that this story is also an allegory. There is a prophecy that the lion-king, Aslan, will return and release the land from the hundred year-long winter imposed by the witch. He comes at last, in the form of a puppet to rival War Horse, and he is willing to lay down his life to save the boy Edmund, whose folly has made him a slave to the wicked witch. He does indeed die, but when the sheet covering him is pulled away, the body is gone. During Easter Week, it is not hard to work out where this is coming from.
As a Christian apologist (famously in The Screwtape Letters), C.S. Lewis may not be to everyone’s liking. I recall a friend at university subjecting The Lord of the Rings to a Marxist analysis in which, as the final blow to J.R.R. Tolkien’s reputation, he asked, “And do you know who his best friend was?” He glowered. “C.S. Lewis!”
I certainly found it moving. But you do not have to be religious to enjoy this show. You just have to believe in magic – the magic of the theatre!
- Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis
- Dramaturgy by Adam Peck Director : Michael Fentiman
- Choreographer : Shanelle ‘Tali’ Fergus
- Music by Benji Bower and Barnaby Race
- Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
- Cast includes : Samantha Womack, Jez Unwin, Sam Buttery and Chris Jared
- New Wimbledon Theatre, London
- Until: 16th April 2022
- Running time : 2½ hours, plus Interval
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