Shadowlands – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: William Nicholson

Director: Alastair Whatley

Reviewer: Laura-Jane Bateman

In 1952, writer and Oxford fellow C. S. Lewis met Joy Gresham, an American poet with whom he had been corresponding for several years. William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands, adapted by the author in 1989 from his 1985 television film of the same name, chronicles the true story of the couple’s eight-year relationship. This new touring version from Birdsong Productions is an unhurried, stately affair, slow to catch fire but featuring excellent performances from its leading players.

Set in 1950s Oxford, the play opens with bachelor C. S. Lewis, a respected academic and celebrated children’s author, giving a witty, cynical lecture about the importance of pain and suffering to love and spiritual salvation. Lewis lives with his brother, Major ‘Warnie’ Lewis, and is visited by a pen-pal, New Yorker Joy Gresham and her young son, Douglas. Friendship soon blossoms, and when Joy’s alcoholic, philandering husband demands a divorce, she decides to remain in Oxford permanently, though it takes a life-threatening illness for Lewis to realise his true feelings.

Both acts feel ten minutes too long and the show could benefit from greater rise and fall in the pacing; the entire evening feels very much on one level, preventing the tragic finale from having a truly moving quality. But Nicholson has a gift for naturalistic dialogues and aside from a few superfluous scenes with stuffy professors, the script is witty and well-structured. Stephen Boxer illuminates the stage as C. S. Lewis; he has a quiet but assured presence and shifts easily from intellectual academic to imaginative writer to practical friend. In Lewis’ reflection at the end of the play, once he has discovered what pain and suffering really mean, Boxer gives an accomplished portrayal of a buttoned-up man stricken by grief. Amanda Ryan as the blunt, fiercely intelligent Joy has impeccable delivery and gives real pathos to her more vulnerable scenes. There is also solid work from Denis Lill as Lewis’s long-suffering brother Warnie and Holly Smith as a registrar and hospital nurse, although lack of diction is a cast-wide problem.

Anne-Marie Woodley and Alastair Whatley provide a versatile set evoking the cosy shabbiness of a post-war university town. There is atmospheric lighting from Alex Wardle, cleverly contrasting the warmth of Lewis’ Oxford with the bleakness of his snow-covered Narnia, and scene transitions are smoothly accomplished with the aid of Mia Soteriou’s musical compositions.

Shadowlands is a gentle play given a stately revival by Birdsong Productions. It does not stagger you with its tragic conclusion, rather (in a far more British way) it tugs politely at your heartstrings. while lacking in high drama and occasionally failing to engage, the talented company never miss a beat and reveal the torment hidden behind one of Britain’s most celebrated writers.

Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image:Jack Ladenburg

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