Writer: C S Lewis
Director: Michael Fentiman
Composer: Benji Bower & Barnaby Race
Based on Original Direction/Devising: Sally Cookson
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first of C.S. Lewis’s books to be written in his series, The Chronicles of Narnia. In its lifetime it has enjoyed many adaptations, in many formats: the latest offering is this vibrant production directed by Michael Fentiman which can currently be found on tour at venues across the UK. It follows the story of the four Pevensie children as they are evacuated to the countryside during World War II, and happen upon a magical land full of colourful and mystical creatures.
As the audience take their seats, a solo soldier sits at the piano and plays them in with an array of 1940’s ditties. As the show begins, the music switches to the anthem that encapsulates the feeling of the wartime era: We’ll Meet Again. As the song powerfully builds to a crescendo, the actor-musicians slowly come into view until the stage is flooded by people, luggage, and instruments. The soldiers are waved off to war and the chaos of the evacuation process ensues with a delightful mix of puppetry and physical theatre. The soldiers propel a model train around the stage mimicking the juddering journey across the winding landscape as the children make their way from London to Scotland. This is peppered with short bursts of physical theatre mimicking the internal movement of the passengers on board.
The action of the show is kept in a constant state of flux always mirroring the children’s reality having been uprooted and forced to flee their home. Each time the children transition between worlds, suitcases follow the set changes, and they remain a motif embroidered throughout the action. Shannelle Fergus has choreographed the show in such a way that the disruption within the children’s lives is mimicked by breaking the flow of movement within the ensemble. Often movement is paused and reversed or fragmented for several minutes before being picked up again.
The design of the show by Tom Paris cleverly mirrors the action of the narrative in a whimsical and childlike way. The set design cleverly toys with perception and dimensions: the evacuation train is miniaturised, whilst the internal clock towers over proceedings. In keeping with the element of play that Paris has used in his design for this show, there are subtle details within the costume design that link both worlds too, for example, the Witches Army wear modified versions of the helmets and goggles seen on the British soldiers. The way in which the design and choreography of this production manipulate the sense of perception exemplify the fragmented way in which a child would relay the story.
The four children: Lucy (Karise Yansen), Peter (Ammar Duffus), Susan (Robyn Sinclair) and Edmund (Shaka Kalokoh) are played well and all four capture the naivety and bravery of their characters, steadily driving the narrative. The contrast between Lucy’s airy first trip into Narnia, where she is greeted by soft falling snow, all the while watched over by an ethereal haloed cellist, and the dark brooding atmosphere as Edmund makes his own trip to Narnia adds a sense of foreboding and succinctly sums each of them up as a character.
It is with Edmund’s visit that we have our first encounter with the white witch (Samantha Womack), looking like Boudicca, she is pushed on stage by her army in her carriage which unsubtly looks like a cross between a catapult and a battering ram. Her sickly-sweet exchange with Edmund is dripping with disdain as she tricks him with sweets into betraying his family and running away.
Womack is terrific in this role, frosty and regal with a demeanour of sugar-coated malice. A nice balance is struck as she plays it with poise, delivered in a way that will enchant as opposed to scare young audiences. The first act closes with the song Beware the Witch! commanding a hoard of mythical monsters to kill the resistance fighters. The Witch soars above the stage revelling in her own wickedness as the hoard marauds creating some stunning shadow choreography on the extended fabric panels of her skirt.
Much of the strength of this show can be accredited to the performances of its ensemble cast, each of whom plays multiple roles as well as providing musical accompaniment. Whilst the musical numbers themselves are largely forgettable, they are performed well and are always atmospheric. As the badgers lead the Pevensies to meet the resistance, we are treated to a rousing percussive number performed by all manner of woodland creatures using a range of improvised gadgets such as tin can telephones and makeshift props and weapons. This scene is a vigorous romp through the woodlands and encapsulates the magic of children at play.
This show is an excellent introduction to the world of theatre, with its mix of live-action musical theatre and dynamic puppetry, it is a must-see. Whilst due to the sheer content of this story, the second act seems a little rushed, this is an exceptional adaptation of a well-loved story, an adventure that will bewitch and beguile the whole family.
Runs until 5 February 2022 and on tour