The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Gillian Lynne theatre, London, until January 8
In an ideal world, children’s theatre should be reviewed by children, but I am not sure that would necessarily be greatly to the advantage of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I found myself sitting among a group of them, all fast asleep and in some cases snoring loudly, as this production of CS Lewis’s sturdy old classic was performed.
I don’t say this is not a visually appealing show – it has fine special effects and costumes and Tom Paris’s design looks great – but it is, for all that, a great big empty vessel. Ironically, it was a play about this play – William
Nicholson’s Shadowlands – that made me most aware of its core strengths. Nicholson understood what Lewis was trying to say about how all of us dream of a world of magic and wonder beyond ours and the child in all of us never really wants to let go of that.
The best children’s shows manage to entertain both the children and their parents, but the director Mike Fentiman – keeping slavishly to Sally Cookson’s original production – tries too obviously to get both on side and
manages to disappoint both. It’s a crying shame as the story has a message for young and old.
There is an obvious opportunity here to make something of the conflict between fantasy and reality that we are now seeing played out around us,
but it’s an opportunity squandered. Lewis always strained never to be politically partisan, but he was passionate about the truth in public discourse. I’ve no doubt at all he would have had a lot to say about what is now happening.
The show starts off with a rendition of We’ll Meet Again to signal that it is wartime and there is a good enough evocation of a train journey as siblings
Lucy (Delainey Hayles), Peter (Ammar Duffus), Edmund (Shaka Kalokoh) and Susan (Robyn Sinclair) are evacuated from London to Inverness to escape the blitz.
They are billeted with Johnson Willis’s fusty, bow-tied, waistcoat-wearing Professor Kirk – that is of course the only way in this cliched production that a professor could ever possibly be presented – and soon enough his wardrobe upstairs is discovered and the children use it as their gateway into the fantastical world of the White Witch and Aslan and Narnia and some regrettable and apparently totally unintentional double entendres about beavers.
The professor, by the way, possesses a cat named Schrödinger that unnervingly seems to have been chopped up into seven pieces, but this is to enable its puppet master under Toby Olié’s direction to manipulate him.
The children are played by competent enough actors, but the great secret here is for them to make us care about them, and I am afraid I was left strangely indifferent to their fates. As ever, it is the baddie who dominates the proceedings and the White Witch is a gift of a part for Samantha Womack, who is at one point raised up into the rafters of the stage showing her long white dress in all of its glory. Visually arresting, of course, but as ever with this production, saying absolutely nothing. In all honesty, I am getting a bit bored of seeing puppets on stage and I’m starting to think the National’s War Horse has a lot to answer for.
Still, I enjoyed Emmanuel Ogunjinmi’s performance as Maugrim – part robot, part snarling animal – which I suspect was inspired by the late Sir Antony Sher’s famously spidery Richard III. There are, it has to be said, a lot of great moments and individual performances in this show, but there is no sense of them all being a part of anything greater or heading in the same direction.
It comes with all sorts of warnings I should pass on – there are moments of complete darkness, flashing lights, haze and smoke effects – and it’s recommended for children aged six and over, with a warning that any under four will not be admitted. The two-and-a-half hours the show runs for go by inoffensively and undemandingly enough, but so much more could have been made of this for both the children and their parents.
I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I also wonder if there is really a need for yet
another children’s show in the West End. This has been a summer of sweltering heat, big musicals and non-stop and universally saccharine entertainment for the kiddies. There will come a long dark night soon – as
we sit huddling together for warmth by candlelight, fretting about bills –
when we will be wondering why the theatre world encouraged us in our