Direct from London, this Elliott & Harper Productions, Catherine Schreiber and Leeds Playhouse show is an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, voted the nations favourite book in 2019. It’s directed by Michael Fentiman (based on the original production of Sally Cookson) and stars Ammar Duffus, Robyn Sinclair, Shaka Kalokoh and Karise Yansen as Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, four children evacuated from London during the Second World War who find themselves transported to the magical world of Narnia and into the conflict between its ruler Aslan and its usurper, The White Witch (Samantha Womack).
With its mix of fantasy and reality (transitioning through the titular wardrobe), this story demands a certain amount of imagination and, let’s be honest, budget. We first see Narnia as a snowy landscape through which trudges a faun with an umbrella (an image CS Lewis reportedly had in his mind since the age of 16, though he wouldn’t set pen to paper for several more decades). The snow is due to the White Witch, who can transform people to stone. Her enemy is a talking lion. Their confrontation involves more magical creatures and a battle. Even with a good budget, all of these things are easier to recreate on film than on-stage. And that is where the imagination must come in. As director Michael Fentiman put it: “The rhythm of how a story is told is not the same, and there are effects that films can achieve that live theatre can’t. I’ve worked on several shows where there are iconic moments that an audience might remember from the original source material. I try as best I can to not replicate the moment on stage, it’s often more reflective of the intentions of the source material to resist the urge to replicate and dig deeper into the emotional truth of the moment, find its poetic core or essence and then allow that to occupy the stage somehow”.
“Poetic core” is a very good summary of this production. The characters are evocatively rather than descriptively clad in the case of the animals. Aslan the Lion is played both a human actor (Chris Jared) and a large puppet (animated by Oliver Bingham, Oliver Grant, and the rebelliously first-named Shaun McCourt) as distinct entities on stage. (As Puppetry director Toby Olie noted, the Aslan of the book is more anthropomorphic than many adaptations and illustrations have suggested, doing such un-lionlike things as walking on two legs at points, though the result of the personified dichotomy does swing the allegorical Christ-like figure right down to literality when the being sacrificing itself is a man with long hair and a beard.) The scenes transition around the characters rather than locations.
The result is, quite simply, magical. The period is instantly set with a soldier (Matthew James Hinchliffe) sitting down at the piano to lead us through a medley of the era’s classics (including “We’ll Meet Again”, “Run, Rabbit, Run” and “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire”), setting up the strong musical component of the show, sung and performed by the actors on, and sometimes, above, the set of swirling gold circles inset in blue. The witchcraft is breathtakingly done through the puppetry, slight of hand and good old-fashioned leverage. In truth, it’s hard to single out a particular highlight or element as it all works so effortlessly well together. At times hilarious (particularly the professor, played by Johnson Willis), and majestic, the show just hits all the right notes.
Great songs, performances and design breathe new life (or unpetrify?) the classic story that has enchanted generations of children and adults. Whether you are wanting to experience an old classic in a new way or introduce someone to it in a visual medium, you’d better hurry, it’s only on for five days until 12th February https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 8th February 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★