Writer: C.S. Lewis
Director: Sally Cookson
Puppetry Director: Craig Leo
Designer: Rae Smith
Composer/MD: Benji Bower
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
The creative team at the West Yorkshire Playhouse are known for their spectacular Christmas productions (who can forget Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a production so successful it went on to tour the UK), and Sally Cookson’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is just that – spectacular.
And even though they’ve experimented with different auditorium setups, this marks the first occasion in the theatre’s history since relocating to Quarry Hill in 1990, that a performance has been staged in the round. This production of the beloved children’s novel by C. S. Lewis is just another reason as to why the Playhouse is one of the UK’s finest producing theatres; so much so, they’ve already extended running time until the end of January.
Smoke lingers in the air and a station clock hangs above the stage, as evacuees are whisked off to their new homes in the countryside. With a nod to historical accuracy, evacuees assemble on stage just as children were lined up in village halls or against walls during WWII. Waiting to be chosen by foster families, the immortal words “I’ll take that one” echo throughout the auditorium.
There are no props on stage save the iconic lamppost, everything bought on and manipulated by the exceptionally talented cast. Designer Rae Smith (War Horse) has created a masterpiece of theatre.
Schrödinger the Cat (an evaluation in its own right) is the first puppet we are introduced to, his long ginger fur flowing in a gentle breeze. And, with just a hint of magic, he leads Lucy to one of the spare rooms in the Professor’s old country house. How will Lucy (Cora Kirk) know what is there, or not there, unless she opens the Wardrobe door? As Lucy tumbles into Narnia, the transformation that occurs on stage is nothing short of magical. Giant white banners unfurl and snow flutters to the ground. Trudging through heavy drifts, she sinks knee deep into the snow, created with impressive effect by lightweight sheets.
“Think of the mind as a parachute, it only works when it is open”
Benji Bower (who makes a cameo as Fox) has written a sublime, Celtic infused score played by musicians situated to the side of the stage, allowing the production to sit somewhere between musical theatre, play, and a physical performance piece. The first song occurs during Lucy’s meeting with Mr Tumnus, a faun (Peter Caulfield), where she learns of Narnia in days of old. And it is here, that we get our first glimpse of some truly stunning costumes as aerial artists perform on silks suspended above the stage.
John Leader as Edmund portrays a very different character than perhaps we are used to. Gone is the spiteful, bad-tempered, arrogant boy from the novel. Instead, he is one afraid and longing for the comforts of home. Cautious and defensive in attitude, his actions are a result of humiliation and embarrassment. We understand and sympathise with him now.
Carla Mendonça as The White Witch is superb. Snow billows around her as she manipulates the frozen element to her pleasing. Surrounded by slaves, plucked of their feathers for use in her crown, they crave their Queens attention. The closing scene of Act I is as spectacular as it is terrifying. The Witch demonstrates her awesome power and control as she rises above the audience, summoning her people. Monstrous creatures thrash about on stage, while Bruno Poet’s lighting again comes into its own, helping to create one of the most memorable, and impressive scenes of the production.
This is a production that does not shy away from the darker sides of the story, parts which are hinted at in the text but not described in detail. Maugrim, performed by Ira Mandela Siobhan, gives a chilling and literal interpretation of the original meaning of the word (a combination of the words ‘maw’, meaning mouth, ‘morgue’ and ‘grim’ from folklore). With a werewolf like quality, a corpselike head extends above the actors own, and he gives a definitive example of the physical theatre embodied throughout.
And, when Aslan appears, the auditorium bursts into spring in spectacular form. The release of anticipation and the stunning manipulation of the huge Aslan puppet is unbelievably moving. Flowers are woven throughout his mane, flowing freely over a patchwork of cloth and a lightweight skeletal frame held high in the air. Wings, folded at his side, extend for the flying scene; a scene of pure elation and joy. Aslan is operated by seven actors, while a fur-clad Iain Johnstone (who also plays the Professor), is at the head of this majestic Lion.
The accordion playing, tap dancing (or should that be clog dancing?), Father Christmas (Tim Dalling) is delightful. Happiness oozes around the Quarry theatre as mirror ball reflections dance across the audience.
The world we live in has evolved since C. S. Lewis wrote his novel (dedicated to his god-daughter Lucy), and the Playhouse’s production is thankfully reflective of modern times. It is not Peter who stands alone in the battle with Maugrim, but with Edmund, Susan and Lucy, united. Moments of humour are present throughout, as are moments of pure emotion. And yes, there is audience participation, but in an incredibly stylish and poignant fashion.
Sally Cookson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a remarkable adaptation and worth every single one of the five stars awarded. Absolutely unmissable this season.
Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Birgit and Ralf Brinkhoff