The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st May, 2016
Jack (aka C. S. Lewis to you and me) is a confirmed bachelor, a middle-aged don lecturing at Oxford about pain and suffering being God’s way of showing us he loves us. Something along those lines, anyway. The lecture, which opens the show, brings to mind the old saw, “Those who can’t, teach”. Indeed, it’s not long before old Jack learns the harsh lesson that experience is vastly different from theory, or indeed theology. Into his stuffy male world amid the hallowed halls of academia, comes American Joy Gresham. They correspond by post initially until she suggests they meet for tea. A friendship is engendered, which develops into something more, bringing Jack into real contact with the pain and suffering he has been banging on about.
This touring show by the excellent Birdsong Productions is supremely enjoyable. William Nicholson’s charming and witty script is brought to sparkling life; director Alastair Whatley knows when to temper the British reserve of the characters with glimpses of emotion. Often, the understated moments are the most striking.
Stephen Boxer makes Jack a likeable figure, as we watch him thaw and take tentative steps toward expressing his feelings, gradually winkled out of his shell. We urge him on and it is touching to see the progress he makes. Amanda Ryan as Joy is the chalk to his cheese, but their differences are mainly on the surface. She is very much his intellectual equal, someone to stir him out of his stagnation. The dialogue sparks between them and, perhaps surprisingly, the laughs keep coming despite some difficult subject matter. Even with a terminal illness, she is funny. The humour binds the couple and endears them to us.
Denis Lill, for me, almost steals the show as Jack’s lovably gruff brother Warnie. British reserve has rarely been more eloquent. Simon Shackleton also makes a strong impression as boorish Professor Riley, offering an atheistic counterpoint to Jack’s faith, while Shannon Rewcroft dons schoolboy blazer and short trousers for a convincing portrayal of Joy’s eight-year-old son.
It’s an entertaining, amusing and absorbing tale of love and loss, superbly presented. Poignant without mawkishness or sentimentality, it shows us that Romeo and Juliet are not the only star-cross’d lovers that can break our hearts and, while it’s based on a couple from real life, shows us the universals in their story, examining notions of pain, suffering and what we mean by ‘love’.