Wednesday 6th December 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
As Professor Kirke tells our child protagonists; the mind should be like a parachute in order to function: open, and this spectacular production of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe glorifies exactly that, taking the audience on an adventure of pure fantasy. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production is a treat of epic proportions which brings Narnia, the world through the wardrobe, to life with enough imaginative flair to capture hearts and minds for the duration… If you see just one show this Christmas season, with or without little ones, make it this.
Devised by the company, directed by the brilliantly creative Sally Cookson and designed by Rae Smith, eagle-eyed for making the mundane magical, the production is undoubtedly a visual spectacle. No small detail is allowed to remain simply that as each simple thing becomes something else, expanding and unfolding to create whole new places and things. The stage is essentially a blank canvas making the overall piece feel ever transient and beautifully other-worldly as Narnia appears and disappears through stylish, simple, yet high-impact design choices alongside the larger, more impressive technical production features. Lighting and sound design dominates here too, with the demandingly tall order of capturing the shifting tones of the plot met with aclarity by Bruno Poet and Ian Dickinson. If glorifying the power of imagination was in the specification, then they’ve certainly delivered with this show. There are also songs sprinkled into the mix (Benji Bower), allowing Ruth Hammond’s vocal accompaniment, among others, to be altogether beautiful and haunting as the story unfolds and the small and large scale puppets (by Marc Parrett with Puppetry Direction from Craig Leo) leave no stone unturned in the land of childhood imagination.
Lewis’ tale sees four children evacuated to a small village in the midst of World War I and this production picks up the story at the moment our four youngsters arrive to a new place in search of a place to stay. Narnia awaits in the guest room of their host, the quirky Professor Kirke, played with dotty wisdom by Iain Johnstone(who dons the cap of Aslan, saviour of Narnia, a little later on). Lucy is the first to discover the magical new world and Cora Kirk plays the role with a fiery assertion and an endearing passion, highlighting Lucy’s strong moral compass beautifully when the time comes. Next to wade past the fur coats into the land of snow is Edmund, whom John Leader plays with a winning combination of tragedy, attention seeking and sincerity. Susan and Peter follow a short while later, played by Patricia Allison and Michael Jean-Marain respectively. Jean-Marain plays the father figure in the absence of a father figure well, striking a balance between childish bewilderment and half assured authority while Allison plays Susan with tentative fearlessness and great warmth. As a quartet of leads, each as vital as the other, the central cast carry us along on their journey of wonderment, threat and self-discovery in a way which never allows the passing of time to be noticed.
Narnia, if you know the story, is of course fighting its own war in parallel to the human world. The evil White Witch is a tyrant who turns the twee, comical creatures of the land into statues at the slightest indication of disobedience. Carla Mendonça makes a wonderfully child-friendly ice queen; with just enough malice and threat to thrill and gently frighten; she’s the picture of a fairytale villain. Opposing this evil ‘Queen’ are Aslan the mighty King of Beasts (played with impressive gravitas and sentiment by Johnstone) and the selfless creatures of Narnia who amuse with their underground communications and larger than life characterisation. The world through the wardrobe carries varied reflections of the world from which the children are, however consciously or unconsciously, seeking respite from. There are power struggles, very real danger, death, loss,camaraderie, bravery, love and loyalty. The delightful forest creatures offer up great opportunities for innocent comedy and are used to illustrate key life lessons amidst all the action; but this is not an overtly didactic play or story; the lessons are gently embedded in the plot, leaving no need for heavy handed moral preaching.
Notable as the lovable animals of Narnia are of course the conflicted Mr Tumnus (Peter Caulfield) who fights his fear of the White Witch to save little Lucy from a dire fate – Cauldfield captures the high-strung character out of the pages of Lewis’ novel with impressive accuracy and doubles as the comical Mr Squirrel, complete with a stark new accent and an entertaining swagger. Mr and Mrs Beaver (Alan Francis and Lucy Tuck) also shine as the protectors of the children when the White Witch is on the prowl; Tuck’s reaction to the fur coats of the children alone is worthy of note! Ira Mandela Siobhan thrills the young audience on the opposing team as Maugrim, a howling, snarling minion of the White Witch showcasing mesmerising talent as he contorts his body and places a firm spotlight on the ‘otherness’ of Narnia’s many creatures. Amalia Vitale steals many scenes as comic of the ensemble – the White Witch’s most prominent minion, Vitale basks in the glee of one liners, playful physicality and comical voices gaining squeals of delight from the audience. Father Christmas provides another hero of the production and Tim Dalling causes mayhem on the stage as the clog-clad all-singing, all-dancing ‘alternative’ vision of good old Saint Nick – well, they are in Narnia, why on earth should there be a traditional aesthetic to this timeless figure?!
There’s no stretch of time in this production which doesn’t carry some variation of stunning visuals from lighting sorcery, smoke, glitter balls and confetti to synchronised lanterns suspended above the whole auditorium. We even have aerial sequences (under the direction of Gwen Hales) to drop the jaws of the youngest audience members, seeing spring arrive or poor Edmund elevated into the air, flailing under the weight of his Turkish Delight desires! Everyday objects are given a magical aura as fixtures spin and sheets become landscapes while simple suitcases transform into something else entirely – each and all reminding us that Lewis’s story is one of great imagination. There are nods to design features I’ve loved and seen elsewhere, like the impressive Elphaba-esque lift and the stage itself harbours many a trap door to allow for spectacular exits and comical appearances of props and the like, also featuring a fractured surface to demonstrate the broken nature of Narnia. The interaction with giant foam flowers scuttling over the audience in the finale, and no matter the sheer volume of ingredients, this team somehow manage to bake a neat and stupendously towering theatrical sweet treat.
There are many claims to productions being a ‘feast’ for the senses, but few are as deserving of the claim as this glorious Christmas show from West Yorkshire Playhouse. With so many design elements, there is a huge risk factor to this show, but the creatives seem to relish exactly that, pushing the production to delight and captivate in a 360 round with every bell and whistle available in the vicinity attached firmly to some plot point. I’d have liked to see more of Aslan the lion either alongside Aslan the man or without and I think that was perhaps the only missed trick here. It’s very much like the desert cart arriving and never having to make a choice – it’s all ours for a full two hours and twenty minutes of time whizzing by like one of Susan’s arrows. Our quartet of endearing youngsters out to prove their mettle make a wonderful team to challenge and inspire young minds while the ensemble and production itself are undoubtedly impressive and entertaining for all ages, so I say get yourself tickets for this fabulous show prontito!
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until January 27th and you can get your tickets here. As a pioneering theatre championing access and inclusion, West Yorkshire Playhouse is also offering for this show: BSL-interpreted performances, Captioned performances, a relaxed performance and a dementia friendly performance.