BWW Review: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, Bridge Theatre
Copies of C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have decorated children's bookshelves since its publication in 1950, and the image of a solitary gas lamppost amidst a blanket of white snow has become iconic. Following a successful run at the Leeds Playhouse in 2017, Sally Cookson's adaptation of Lewis's novel is now at the Bridge Theatre, and proves a perfect tonic to the theatrical soul, with impeccable design and innovative scenic effects.For those unfamiliar with the story, a gigantic wardrobe takes the four Pevensie children, who are evacuees from London during the Blitz, into the world of Narnia. This mythical realm suffers never-ending winter due to the icy reign of the White Witch. Yet the children's coming signals the beginning of a new age and, with the help of Aslan, king of all the beasts, together they plan to overthrow the queen and herald the spring.
At two hours and 40 minutes, it'd be a lie however to say that this show keeps your attention throughout. As a Turkish Delight dream-sequence song began, a little voice behind me asked "Why is he singing?", and I have to agree. Although some musical numbers, like Mr Tumnus's song about spring, work fine and complement the show (and Stuart Neal is in good voice indeed), others offer inconsistent interludes.
Issues of pacing mostly affect the first act. For example, whilst the idea of having the evacuees' bags become the carriages of the miniature train passed between the cast to represent the journey up north is clever, the entire sequence is overlong.
The problem may lie in the overall structure of the show: Lucy and Edmund first go individually into Narnia before the four siblings go together. Once the Pevensie children are all together in Narnia at around the 50-minute mark, the pace picks up, but until then there are copious scene shifts that drag - and, ultimately, we're here to see snow, talking lions and kind fauns.
Whether these problems stem from Sally Cookson's direction or the show's book (Adam Peck was writer in the room) is unclear. But Cookson has certainly ensured that all of the cast put in dedicated performances.
The four Pevensie children together are a strong quartet. Femi Akinfolarin as Peter has a noble manner, and Shalisha James-Davis as Susan moves well between excitement and fear. Keziah Joseph's wide-eyed Lucy is charming, however it is John Leader as Edmund who shines. The character is really the only one of the four siblings with an obvious arc from an annoying brother to a supportive and caring one, but Leader brings an early inconstant cowardliness to his role that is convincingly gone by the play's end.
Laura Elphinstone as the White Witch is sharp and severe, barely controlling her unbridled rage with an authoritative and commanding stage presence. Also brilliant is Beverly Rudd as Mrs Beaver and Wil Johnson as both Aslan and Professor Kirke, a doubling that brings a neat circularity to the show (and an irony, given Elphinstone also plays Kirke's housekeeper, Mrs Macready).
The individual production departments have all evidently worked incredibly hard. Bruno Poet's lighting is instrumental in establishing the mood of each scene, and Craig Leo's puppetry is stunning. Susanna Peretz's make-up also warrants praise. For a piece mostly set in the all-encompassing canvas of white snow, there's a beautiful amount of colour throughout.
In spite of the pacing issues and tonal inconsistencies, it's a testimony to Rae Smith's design and the production quality of the entire show that the children in the audience seemed completely enraptured. Just being in the theatre is a magical event.
It cannot be denied that watching Narnia form in front of your very eyes is a marvel. Being enveloped in white cloth, the stage become a blank canvas, ready for the imagination of the cast and crew to create a world where magic is all around. If you've got young children, stepping into this wardrobe may be perfect treat this Christmas season.
Photograph credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg