THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th November, 2015
The REP’s Christmas offering this year pulls out all the stops in terms of production values in order to bring C S Lewis’s classic novel to the stage in this adaptation by Adrian Mitchell. It looks and sounds great. Jamie Vartan’s set has layers that strip away: the real world of the Pevensie siblings is rather two-dimensional but once they step through the eponymous wardrobe, they find themselves in the 3D land of Narnia. The snow-laden landscape looks beautiful under Colin Grenfell’s lights, and with original music by Shaun Davey played live under the baton of MD Neil MacDonald, there is much to appreciate. Narnia’s weird inhabitants (some of them are animals, some are anthropomorphic animals, and some are mythical creatures) are brought to life by some expressive and delightful puppets and some inventive costume designs, inspired no doubt by The Lion King. The transitions between the two worlds, where time moves differently, are stylishly done.
And so technically and artistically, the show is very strong.
The casting too is great. Allison McKenzie doubles as the stern housekeeper and the White Witch, self-appointed Queen of Narnia. She struts around melodramatically and the most incredible vocal sounds come out of her in moments of duress. She’s an enjoyable baddie, a despotic diva. Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete bring humour (and tons of exposition) as Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Jo Servi is a likeable Mr Tumnus the faun.
The four children are led by handsome Michael Lanni as eldest brother Peter, striving to be grown-up but still childlike at times. Leonie Elliott is solid as sensible Susan, James Thackeray is a suitably surly and self-serving Edmund, and Emilie Fleming brings out the naivety and innocence of youngest sister Lucy. It’s never easy to have adults playing children alongside other adults, but these four pull it off rather credibly.
My problem is with the material. C S Lewis’s heavy-handed allegory has never sat well with me, and Aslan the lion (an impressive, beautifully articulated, three-man puppet that reminds me of War Horse) is unbearably pompous.
Narnia is full of contradictions. They have tea and toast but don’t know what a wardrobe or a spare room are. How they source their Turkish delight is another mystery. But these are quibbles compared to the main plot itself. The children are helped by the Beavers, a funny, friendly couple who turn out to be religious nutters. How quickly the kids are indoctrinated into their cult of Aslan! And then Father Christmas himself rocks up and arms them with weapons for their holy war against the oppressor, the White Witch. The sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan – the most blatant part of the allegory – should be the most powerful part of the story, but by then I’m past caring. It’s all too po-faced and self-important to engage me. Ah, says the Witch, there’s some deep magic rules that mean I can do this. Oh, says Aslan, what she doesn’t know is there’s some deeper magic rules which mean I can do this. Oh, give over, I think, giving up trying to suspend my disbelief.
The play needs to be a little less earnest and to lighten up a lot. It’s all a bit worthy for my tastes to be involving – A pity because the talent on stage and the creativity behind the scenes demonstrate that excellence is well within reach.