Writer: William Nicholson
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
In the stuffy corridors of post-war Oxford University, a professor debated the relationship between love, pain, suffering and God. It’s a dilemma he understands intrinsically. Reserved, suppressing emotions and living with his brother, the professor unexpectedly finds love late in life in the form of a brash American divorceewho has been writing fan mail to him.
It may sound like the synopsis for a novel or Hollywood blockbuster but true life is oftenstranger than fiction and, in William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, we follow this (largely) true story of the unconventional love story of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham.
The pair initially met via TransAtlantic fan letters but, following divorce, a marriage of convenience for citizenship and illness, they develop a deep and affecting love, cut short by Joy’s untimely death from cancer.
Nicholson’s script is, perhaps given its protagonists, unsurprisingly wordy but that literary weight also adds depth to the story, giving us an insight into a world changed by war but within academia still weighted by tradition, expectation, and formality. The intrusion of a woman, and even worse an educated, bold and Jewish woman, into this male preserve shocks the traditionalists but untimely wins the heart of Lewis.
As Lewis and Joy, Stephen Boxer and Amanda Ryan hold the key to much of the drama, between them holding centre stage for the entire show. The pair delivers faultless performances, allowing the complex layers of this most complex of relationships to be slowly revealed. Boxer’s Lewis draws us in with a carefully drawn portrayal of a man just as much battling with his own faith and beliefs as he is with the stark horrors of disease.
Ryan’s Joy may be more direct but there’s layers revealed here. Able to hold her own in the misogynistic world of academia but afraid of what will happen to her husband and son after her death.
There’s fine support from the company, including Denis Lill’s sensitive portrayal of Lewis’ brother and initial voice of reason who turns out to be the pair’s most staunch defender.
Alastair Whatley’s direction (Whatley also designs the production) is paced perfectly, realising that this literary world can’t be rushed and needs space, pauses and time to weave its magic on an audience. It does make the first half seem lengthy but it works in counterpoint to the shorterand more unsettling second. There are references to Lewis’ work that readers will recognise and a beautifully realised trip to the world of Narnia to give hope in the darkest of hours, but ultimately this is a story of love and loss that resonates with all, familiar with the author’s work or not.
Nicholson may never give us a full insight into the drivers of Joy Gresham in coming to the UK to meet her literary hero but post meeting we are treated to an insight into the joy and the pain this remarkable couple endured.
For those who only know the work of C.S. Lewis through Walt Disney Pictures’ recent film adaptations, this production may seem heavy going but bear with it and the effort more than repays itself.
Runs until 19 March 2016 and continues to tour | Image:Jack Landeburg