BWW Reviews: THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE, Birmingham Rep Theatre, December 1 2015

C.S.Lewis' timeless story The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a perfect fit for the festive season. It has had several stage reincarnations over the years and the fact that it has been revisited again at the Birmingham Rep is a testament to its appeal. The theatre last staged the show in 2009 as a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse whom presented the original production in both 2004 and 2007 to critical acclaim. This year it is solely produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and directed by Tessa Walker, who returns after directing A Christmas Carol at the theatre in 2013.

The House stage is a massive playing space and based on their usual production values, expectations are high. Due to the amount of room that the world of Narnia consumes, the house scenes are the beginning are very limited and a long way downstage. For the first 15 minutes or so, the groundwork is not done in introducing the story; there is a presumption that everyone knows what they are about to watch and the content and scene changes are very rushed. However, once in Narnia, that is where the show truly begins.

Jamie Vartan's winter wonderland is effective in its simplicity and allows the audience to let their imaginations run wild. The white sheets laid out across the stage to represent the snow and ice, as a still image look beautiful but can be slightly unpractical for the actors it seems! Elements such as Mr Tumnus' house and the Beaver's home are part of the existing set throughout but unfold like a pop-up book when needed which works brilliantly. The stone table that appears from sub stage level and the break/mend of the set piece is very effective, as is the moment Aslan disappears after the sacrifice. Ultimately, the stars of the show are the puppets (designed by Mervyn Millar and Jo Lakin). From small woodland creatures, to giants and dwarves, to the enormous Aslan creation; the level of detail is quite extraordinary. Aslan is in three detached pieces and the direction/operation of this puppet is faultless. Colin Grenfell's lighting emphasises its beauty and contains snapshots of excellence but occasionally seems a little jerky, especially during scene changes.

Tessa Walker's direction is well done, using the vast stage to its full advantage. Overall it seems the design spectacle has overtaken the quality of performance but as a family production, this has a reasonably low impact. It is nice to see the pit being used to house a handful of musicians, performing music by Shaun Davey and directed superbly by Neil MacDonald. There is plenty of incidental music during the scenes and although a few of the songs seem a touch sporadic, there are a few that really instil magic; the finale song in particular. The vocal quality in these ensemble numbers is exceptional.

The four Pevensie children are competently played by Michael Lanni, Leonie Elliott, James Thackeray and Emilie Fleming. Thackeray especially is a great Edmund. Lanni and Elliott (Peter and Susan respectively) give good performances but don't really have the opportunity to shine. Fleming as Lucy could have pushed her performance level a lot further; having seen her in other productions, she is capable of a great deal more. She appears fairly deadpan throughout and no real excitement or passion shines through which is a shame. Light hearted relief comes from Mr and Mrs Beaver, played by Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete, who both possess excellent comic timing. Allison McKenzie is a menacing White Witch and plays the character almost panto villain-esque. Her physicality is bizarre at times but this adds to her eccentricity. Nuno Silva operates the head whilst commanding the voice of Aslan and his vocals carry the exact warm tone and power of authority required. Danielle Bird also needs to be greatly recognised for her phenomenal puppeteering skills throughout.

A fun treat for the whole family which will certainly get you in the festive spirit.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe runs at Birmingham Rep Theatre until 16th January 2016.

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From This Author Jenny Ell

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