Music: Benji Bower and Barnaby Race
Writer: C S Lewis
Adaptor: Sally Cookson
Director: Michael Fentiman
The Chronicles of Narniais a book series familiar with many for its magical storytelling by C.S Lewis. The first of this series is arguably its most well known; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Fresh from its successful West End appearance and a UK tour, this adaptation based on the original production by Sally Cookson and directed by Michael Fentiman is a delight for families to come and watch.
The story needs little introduction, but it follows four children who are embarking on the fearful journey as evacuees to the Scottish countryside. This is where we first see the innovation from the creative team as a physical version of the train making its way through the dark, misty winter’s night transports the children to their new temporary home. Given the horrors and shock they expect to face living in a country at war, what they do in fact encounter is hardly believable to them and us. Forget ducking and diving from soldiers and tanks, instead they are replaced with wonderful, mystical creatures who will decide their fate as they delve into the depths of Narnia.
The audience are immediately engaged as they enter the theatre with war-time songs entertaining us on the piano. As the production begins, this explodes into a passionate rendition of We’ll Meet Again as the soldiers are emotionally separated from their loved ones to be sent off to fight for peace. The music composed by Benji Bowyer and Barnaby Race is exceptional. A musical play at Christmas time needs songs which capture the imagination of audiences young and old and this certainly does so.
The scenes set in the world of Narnia is where this production really comes to life with jaw-dropping moment after jaw-dropping moment. Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter can scarcely believe what they are coming across, and neither can we. Costumes designed by Tom Paris are imaginative, especially The White Witch as she commands the stage. Cath Whitefield exudes power in the role and depicts a frightening witch, in particular when she is elevated to tower over her subjects. Her role is made even scarier with the appearance of her loyal sidekick, Maugrim, who in this production is created with half animal, half robotics to add extra effect and fear.
The cast itself are all tremendous in their roles. Kudazi Mangombe in particular does a fine job showing Lucy’s innocence and bewilderment as she first steps into the alternative world. Jez Unwin portrays the indecisive Mr Tumnus well as he wrestles with morals and his own fear of the witch, while Samuel Morgan-Grahame brings a barrel of laughs to the role of Mr Beaver. All of the cast engage in electric moments of physical theatre which add to the enchantment and magic of this production.
The original puppetry design by Max Humphries is spectacular. Multiple puppets are used throughout but the one used for Aslan is breath-taking. The first moment he arrives on stage leaves the audience intently watching in amazement. It is the right decision to have Oliver Hoare on stage alongside the towering puppet to add a more personable touch to the character given his importance in the story.
There are some moments after the interval that feel rushed and can take you by surprise that the play is nearly at an end. While festive productions are normally an invitation to bring the whole family along, caution should be exercised for those very young as there are some scary and loud moments which will leave adults having nightmares about the wicked witch, let alone the younger children in attendance. This aside, the Birmingham REP is the place to be this Christmas if you are looking for a production full of enchantment, magic, and spectacularly creative moments.
Runs until 28 January 2024