BWW Review: THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS at Bakehouse Theatre

BWW Review: THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS at Bakehouse TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 20th April 2017

Seventy-five years after being published, The Screwtape Letters, written by C. S. Lewis, has been adapted and directed by Hailey McQueen. Clock & Spiel Productions are presenting Yannick Lawry, as Screwtape, a senior demon in the service of "Our Father Below", and George Zhao, as Toadpipe, an invented character for the play who acts as a secretary, handling the correspondence. The book, incidentally, was dedicated to his friend, colleague, and fellow Inkling, J. R. R.Tolkien, both of them taught in the English Department at Oxford University and both were strongly Christian.

The 31 letters were first published weekly in the Anglican journal, The Guardian, during 1941and then collected into a book in 1942. They contain advice from the older and experienced demon, Screwtape, to his young nephew, Wormwood, who is undertaking his first assignment in tempting a mortal man, who is referred to only as, "the patient". It is a satirical work, espousing Lewis's own beliefs, and intended to guide Christians in their lives and avoid the temptations that might come their way to distract them from their path. Non-believers, of course, will get far more laughs out of it.

The set, by Isabella Andronos, who also designed the costumes, is a well-appointed office, with solid, antique furniture, befitting a demon of some stature in the bureaucracy, the 'lowerarchy'of Hell. Letters are read and written, of course, and so McQueen has Screwtape dictating the letters to Toadpipe as a means to lift them from the paper and turn them into spoken word. Lewis wrote a follow up for The Saturday Evening Post, in 1959, titled Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and she draws on this to form an introduction to the performance, having Screwtape, standing at a lectern in his academic doctoral robes, delivering a talk to graduating new demons at the annual dinner of the Tempter's Training College for Young Devils, of whom his nephew is one.

Yannick Lawry gives us a Screwtape who is a suave, sophisticated, educated, and well-spoken demon, impeccably dressed and supremely confident of his own abilities. Unfortunately, the recipient of his advice, Wormwood, is a supremely incompetent new recruit, a source of frustration and fury to Screwtape, as it reflects badly on himself as the mentor. As the patient continually avoids the temptations placed in his path, becoming a Christian, finding a good Christian wife and, ultimately, ascending to heaven after his death on the battlefields, Lawry shows us Screwtape's loss of composure, angry outbursts, and desperation, as he tries, letter by letter, to salvage the ever worsening situation.

George Zhao's performance is based in physical theatre, with occasional bursts of dialogue. The mail is sent and received in strange ways and, as the office's postmaster, this job falls to Toadpipe, giving Zhao the opportunity to engage in a string of visual jokes that keep the audience laughing.

Where Lawry portrays a professional, a master of his work, Zhao gives us his somewhat less that attentive and alert assistant. The relationship that they establish adds yet another level of humour to the wit of Lewis, presented with great skill by Lawry, and the physical comedy of Zhao.

Christopher Page's lighting design and Adam Jones's music and sound design complement the set and the performance very well but, oh, that weird and repetitive theme music really is Hell, or at least Purgatory, but perhaps ideally suited to the work because of that.

Lewis wrote a witty, satirical work, as a warning and guide for Christians, which Hailey McQueen has transmuted into a comical play that appeals to anybody, no matter what your religious views, or lack thereof. Sit back and laugh.


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