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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review

West Yorkshire Playhouse transforms into Narnia for the festive season.

Credit: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff.

This Christmas, West Yorkshire Playhouse brings Narnia to the region as the Quarry Theatre is transformed in a remarkable new production of C.S. Lewis’ much-loved children’s fantasy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of a series of novels, is perhaps the best known of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Released in 1950, the tale is set against the backdrop of the second world war and follows four siblings as they are evacuated from the city to the sanctuary of a country home.

When the youngest of the Pevensie family ventures through a wardrobe and discovers a parallel world of mythical beasts and talking animals, her brothers and sister scarcely believe her story.  But soon they all pass through the wardrobe into Narnia and encounter an ancient evil who has frozen the land in a century-long winter. Joining forces with Aslan, the rightful King of the land, the children attempt to liberate Narina from the wicked White Witch in an epic battle against an army of beasts and ghouls…

The cast of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Credit: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been newly devised by its ensemble cast and is committed to page by writer-in-the-room Adam Peck. The result is a richly-imagined, fertile world that invests great depth and texture in its society of weird creatures.

Such a direct focus on character is essential in this instance, as the unconventional decision to place the landscape of Narnia in-the-round means much of the landscape is expressed through characters’ reactions to offstage action or far off vistas. There are few stage dressings to evoke the world; this production is a showcase for props, costume, light, sound and performance.

Patricia Allison, Michael Jean-Marain, Cora Kirk and John Leader play substantially younger than their years yet successfully convince as the gung-ho Susan, Peter, Lucy and Edmund. Traditionally portrayed with a wearying RP, this new teaming refreshingly presents a group of knockabout blitz kids with a credible Yorkshire drawl. Regional accents also issue from some of the speaking animals, with Irish and English resistance creatures securing genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

The iconic figure of Aslan is well-realised with Ian Johnstone delivering a gentle, saintly performance of the Christ-like lion. His physical manifestation as the King of Narnia is conjured through a sweeping ensemble of puppetry that impresses both in scale and design. The giant flying lion isn’t seen all that often, however when he makes an entrance he’s beautifully articulated.

Carla Mendonca’s White Witch is steely, pointed and regally styled with an icy delivery which is sure to chill audiences to the core. The witch’s sinister demise is also one of the visual highlights of the show – though the bleak funereal iconography squashes most intentions of vainglorious pantomime cheering.

Aslan, King of Narnia, told through puppetry in-the-round. Credit Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff.

The captivating essence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is its imaginative collection of creatures and beasts. Peter Caulfield quickly sets the quirky tone of Narnian animals as Mr Tumnus, the lovable fawn. The clowning sprites and (genuinely disturbing) ghouls bring a carnival feel to the show and will be an instant hit with younger children.

Lucy Tuck and Alan Francis issue a domesticated warmth as Mrs and Mr Beaver, alongside comedy relief from Amalia Vitale who steals scenes with her deliciously grotesque Bog.  Ira Mandela Siobhan brings a primal intensity to Maugrim, whilst some delightful puppetry comes in the form of Schrodinger the cat, brought to life in a careful study by Tom Wainwright.

An issue with in-the-round theatre, particularly on a large scale, is that an audience can find themselves transversely distracted by the audience on the opposite side. The great benefit to this method, however, is that the stage affords a stadium-like scale to its choreography with a three-dimensional depth to the action; spatial depth is particularly evident when characters move through the wardrobe with a carousel-like motion, which would be wholly impractical in traditional end-on theatre.

Sally Cookson’s direction is deviceful and makes inspired use of the space, whilst Dan Canham’s sweeping choreography delivers an animated urgency. Abundant white silks create a snowscape with a series of circus-inspired aerial dance pieces, ensuring the show excels in pure visual impact. One particular flying effect is stunningly achieved at the climax to Act I and evokes a celebrated moment from the musical Wicked. Grandiose magical moments like these are guaranteed to make a lasting impression on audiences.

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Maugrim. Credit: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff.

Whilst the show is light on musical numbers, there is a beautifully evocative underscore provided by a live band, inspired by folk traditions from Ireland and northern Europe. Occasionally leaning towards a cinematic soundtrack, some welcome synthesizer tones break through the mix – a counterpoint to Ian Dickenson’s imposing sound design – to provide a disturbing tension in some action sequences.

Lighting designer Bruno Poet achieves a great sense of mood and place with judicious side lighting and overhead spots, giving an almost operatic quality to the stage. In a magical touch, hundreds of paper globes are installed like stars in the ether above the audience’s heads; stretching the entire range of the theatre to accentuate the chasm-like scale of the Quarry space. With endless details in production design and stagecraft, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe embraces its stadium scale and punctuates the performance with a touch of audience participation, ensuring everyone in-the-round feels very much part of Narnia’s landscape.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an ambitious, flamboyant and adventurous production which delivers an awesome breadth of scale and scope. A coupling of innovative direction, richly-invested performance and capacious visuals, this gently seasonal, baroque reimagining has successfully surmounted technical challenges to deliver a very special shared experience. Lightly dusted with Christmas sparkle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe invites all ages to enter a captivating winter world; it is an opportunity that many will wish to experience time and again.

Cast: Gareth Aled, Patricia Allison, Peter Caulfield, Alan Francis, Marie Hamilton, Michael Jean-Marain, Iain Johnstone, Cora Kirk, John Leader, Sofie Lyback, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Carla Mendonca, Helena Parke, Anwar Russell, Lucy Tuck, Amalia Vitale, Tom Wainwright, Benji Bower, Ruth Hammond, Will Bower, Tim Dalling. Director: Sally Cookson Writer in the Room: Adam Peck Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse. Duration: 140 minutes Dates: 29th November 2017 – 21st January 2018.

 

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