Writer: William Nicholson
Director: Alastair Whatley
Designers: Anne-Marie Woodley, Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It is over 30 years since William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands appeared on television, with stage and major film adaptations to follow in the next 10 years. This new tour by Birdsong Productions holds no surprises, but still emerges as a solid, emotionally and intellectually honest piece of theatre.
C.S. Lewis is best remembered now for his fantasy novels which are imaginatively referenced in the script, but more important in the play (and, one suspects, to Lewis himself) is his work as a Christian philosopher, with popular books about the discovery of faith. His own life underwent a major change in his 50s which is the basis for the play, though, as Nicholson points out, it is not a documentary-drama: factual authenticity is not the issue.
Lewis is first seen lecturing at Oxford on the nature of God and the importance of suffering in making us better people – a lecture delivered with intellectual brio and wit – then wining and dining with entertaining colleagues who for the most part find women a mysterious alien species. Lewis himself is more tolerant and open-minded than some, but his life is still circumscribed by the essentially male world of the Oxford common room. In his 50s he is a bachelor, sharing a house with his brother Warnie – Major W.H. Lewis.
Then the unlikely happens, followed by the even more unlikely. Joy Gresham, a New Yorker in an abusive marriage and a devout Christian inspired by Lewis’ writing, contacts him; academic discussion leads to friendship; possibility of visa loss prompts a marriage of convenience; the diagnosis of her terminal cancer and the stirrings of love turn that marriage into a genuine commitment in the eyes of the church; her remission brings three years of happiness before Lewis, by now “loving her too much”, has to relate her death to his confident pronouncements on faith.
Whatley’s production is true to the structure of the play, one scene flowing into another against a pleasing sort-of-medieval setting, with simple carry-on and wheel-on props and furniture. For all that, pace is difficult to maintain in the wordy first half, though the Oxford dons (Simon Shackleton the most outrageously bigoted) are neatly differentiated and Denis Lill bumbles delightfully and sympathetically as Lewis’ old buffer of a brother, somewhat wiser than he seems.
Amanda Ryan’s Joy is strongly characterised through many changes, from the voluble disciple and aggressive feminist to the courageous patient to the understanding soul-mate, but the outstanding performance comes from Stephen Boxer as C. S. Lewis. Always an actor of self-effacing authority, he gives every nuance of the script full value and explores the character’s essence with great intelligence, humanity and understated wit, as he is, in a pun Lewis would have appreciated, “surprised by Joy”.
Touring nationwide | Image:Jack Ladenburg