DramaReviewSouth West

Shadowlands – Lyric, Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: William Nicholson
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Set in post-war Oxford, Shadowlands follows the relationship between Joy Gresham, an American poet, and C S Lewis, the academic and celebrated author of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Chronicles of Narnia series of books.

The confirmed bachelor, Lewis lives with his brother, Warnie, at a home on the edge of Oxford. In a city where the university dominates the culture, closeted, collegiate life defines Lewis’ own daily existence. He happily works, eats, socialises in this rarefied culture of panelled walls and mullioned windows surrounded exclusively by male intellectuals. Despite their academic accomplishments, their experiences are limited by their unique lives. A product of this and their time, they are emotionally repressed, politely prejudiced, inhibited by manners and Englishness and often misogynistic.

Then in 1952 along comes Joy Gresham. She had already intrigued Lewis with a two-year correspondence by the time they finally met in Oxford. She is the polar opposite to what Lewis had become accustomed to. Herself a gifted academic, she ruffles the feathers of the Oxford intelligentsia. Unaccustomed to people talking frankly, her openness appears to them as bluntness and offends their restraint. Her ability to stand up to their intellectual bullying and prejudices leaves them speechless, “Are you being offensive or just stupid?” she chastises the most overtly sexist of them all. From this most unlikely start a relationship between an uninhibited, open, divorced, New York, Jewish-Christian convert and a restrained, committed Christian, seemingly passionless, bachelor begins.

William Nicholson’s charming play imagines the path of the relationship between the two. We watch as Gresham and Lewis’s relationship develops from intellectual acquaintance to firm, inseparable friendship; from intimate yet, platonic, bond, ultimately to genuine love. Despite their different personalities and Lewis’ difficulties in recognising his own deeper feelings, Gresham brings colour and light into Lewis’ grey world.

Nicolson’s play relies heavily on dialogue between the two main characters as their relationship develops and is then cut brutally short by Gresham’s tragic diagnosis of terminal cancer. While Stephen Boxer (Lewis) and Amanda Ryan (Gresham) put in solid performances, something lacking in the chemistry between the two fails to convince of the transformation that comes about in Lewis and, despite the touching script, their shared life remains distinctly monochrome. Only Denis Lill, playing the part of Lewis’ older brother, successfully displays the slight nuanced changes to convey a lighter outlook as he is touched by Gresham’s influence.

What Boxer does convey supremely well is the difficulties Lewis had reconciling the anguish at his tragic loss with his Christian beliefs. Struggling and agonising at how a loving God could allowsuch pain and suffering, Nicholson’s writes Lewis the lines “We are all rats in God’s laboratory … and God is the vivisectionist”. Boxer is compelling as the distressed, softly spoken, Lewis agonising with his shaken faith.

Stagingis used conservatively. The high panelled walls and tall mullioned windows are an easy choice to convey the setting but didn’t quite convey the oppressive greyness of Oxford academia and its clubbable masculine world. The change to dusty, domestic home is smoothly managed by rotating screens. But the set misses the opportunity to support the changes in the relationship and again the opportunity to convey the feeling of transformation is lost. This is frustrating as the dialogue-dependant script means there was little change to pace and, overall, the feeling was a little monotonous, particularly in the first half.

Ultimately, it is the words that Nicholson’s writes that makes this touching romance burn brightly. His imagined dialogue glows with the transforming warmth that lights the passion in Lewis. This enduring story of love found in the most improbableplaces reminds us that love in different times, places and cultures can runjust as deep between two people despite, the seemingly still waters above can touch and this can touch and illuminate our own lives for years to come.

Runs until 11 June 2016 then continues to tour | Image:Jack Ladenburg

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