Review of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’: “Magic beyond the stage”

The timeless fantasy tale returns to the theatre in a brand new production after touring around the UK. Upon attending the opening night, Guillermo Názara shares his impressions on this version of Lewis’ classic, to let us know what is awaiting between the lamp-post and the great castle of Cair Paravel.

All shall be done, but it may be harder than you think. C.S. Lewis’ resounding words of wisdom might as well serve as a quote coming from any creative team trying to adapt his popular (and for decades, part of the British folklore) childrens novel. From movies to audio versions, it’s certainly not the first time that somebody attempts to bring the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy to the stage (the records of which going back to the 80s), but that should not dim our curiosity over a more recent dramatisation concerning the land of Aslan. At least, not with this one.

Settling at London’s West End’s Gillian Lynne Theatre after the premature closing of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, the production has been around for a good bunch of years now, debuting at the Leeds Playhouse in 2017 and moving around the UK from the end of last year. Thus, it would be fair to expect a downscaled effort when recreating the whimisical landscapes of its paralel universe, and though we’re not talking about the most opulent show on offer, the visuals are still quite impressive – in particulary, thanks to a very smart use of the space and staging.

Featuring a stylized steam-punk ambiance, the set design (credit to Tom Paris, along with the costumes) succeeds at keeping it simple yet emulating (and sometimes, transporting us to) the charm, illusions and epicity of Lewis’ beloved world. Using a mysterious pianist compulsively playing in the loliness of a vast empty stage as both a preshow and starting tool, the production rapidly transforms into the cold foggy gloom of World War II England, only to leap at the same speed to the intimate coziness of an Victorian cottage and the paradoxical warmth (despite the reasons for its origins) of Narnia’s freezing surroundings. All of that while keeping the same fixed inner proscenium-backdrop, solely recurring to the aid of props and careful blocking to take us from one realm to another.

It’s precisely this good understanding of theatrical language that builds the show’s allure, relying on usually quick seamless transitions from scene to scene (some of which only require a sudden change of movement and lighting), leading to the fast pace of the entire performance. In addition, the use of ancient and traditional staging techniques like miming, acrobatics and puppetry (especially the much advertised lion body marionette) contribute to the implied (and occasional factual) spectacularity of the piece. This is also enhanced by the help of an extremely well-written and orchestrated live underscore, combined with several musical numbers that, although do not turn the play into a musical due to their scarce nature, contribute to both laying an atmosphere and moving the plot forward. This last feature poses, however, a conflict as a viewer, as their first entrance can catch a bit off guard (therefore not too predisposed for them) and when your mind gets set for them, their limited appearances can leave you with an unfulfilled crave for more. A outlining problem that, nonetheless, does not make the show any less enjoyable.

Being so conceptual and, in some ways, Brechtian when depicting Lewis’ legendary milieu, there’s no question about the importance of a trustworthy cast to put up with the challenge of immersing an audience into the lands of imagination. Thankfully, this is no doubt the proudest achievement of this production, as not only will you be staring at accomplished actors and singers, but also remarkable musicians. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe shakes the talent scene by adding a new layer to the expression triple threat, as their performers are also able to skillfully play instruments while dancing through demanding coreographies, just to be followed by indepth spoken parts always interpreted with dramatism and much satisfying naturality. As for names, the two adult leads Chris Jared as the mighty and sage Aslan and Samantha Womack as the stone-hearted White Witch are unquestionably the recipients of the highest praise.

Developing a cohesive display through the use of both visual and acoustic aesthetics, Michael Fentman’s (director) vision of the 50s classic is, in some way, an artform of its own, as the lack of a more accurate word to describe it only intensifies the uniqueness of the experience – something that unarguably plays in its favour. Suitable for both families and adults (as long as they are into mythical wondrous plots), this montage is an entertaining and gratifying attainment capable enough to entice you once or twice. Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. Well, I don’t know about that – but as for watching them, I’m surely on board.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will play for a strictly limited season in the West End until 8 January 2023. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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