DramaReviewSouth West

Shadowlands – Exeter Northcott

Writer: William Nicholson
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer:Kelyn Luther

Shadowlands, adapted for film in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, is based on C.S Lewis’ (Stephen Boxer) relationship with Joy Gresham (Amanda Ryan), an intellectual woman 17 years younger. When she becomes terminally ill, Lewis’ firm ideals of the purpose of suffering and the nature of God are challenged.

The play opens with C.S Lewis, who is known as Jack to his friends, giving the audience a lecture on this subject and we hear these words repeated later in the play as Jack re-evaluates his position. Some of the debates and discussions in the play felt dryly lofty rather than showing the intellectual spark between Jack and Joy that indicates them to be soulmates.

Anne-Marie Woodley and Alastair Whatley’s costume design shows Joy literally as a splash of colour in Jack’s dull life, with her clothes being rich deep colours in contrast to the grey and black outfits of the circle of men that Jack associates with.

The title refers to Earth, which Jack argues is a shadow of the real life that is found in Heaven. Alex Wardle’s lighting design provides some very atmospheric shadows, particularly at the end of the play, but there are also moments where the light is much softer in order to reflect the tenderness between Joy and Jack.

The contrast between Jack’s British repression and Joy’s straight-talking American attitude adds some comedy without being reductive and this aspect of their relationship is played effectively by Boxer and Ryan. What is less convincing is the romantic chemistry; it is true to the chaste nature of the real-life romance of Joy and Jack but rather than feeling like pure love, it feels like prudishness.

Individually their performances are convincing; Ryan’s accent is consistent and she embodies the image of the strong Jewish-American woman, and Boxer portrays Jack’s intellectualism and faith well. It is hard to talk about religion in a play performed in the 21st Century and yet Jack’s belief comes across as spiritual rather than sanctimonious. It’s just that the strength of his love for Joy that Jack professes to his circle of friends doesn’t translate into their relationship when the scene is just the two of them.

The first act is slow and feels like it drags; the second act feels similarly slow and yet its emotional richness means that the audience do not resent the pace. Its themes of faith and suffering mean that the play has a depth that transcends the depressing nature of the situation and the biographical genre. However, Boxer and Ryan lack the depth of chemistry to push this solid production into being a great one.

Runs until 2 July 2016, then continues to tour | Image:Jack Ladenburg

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