To describe The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as Amélie with ice feels incredibly reductionist, when this play (with music) soars – and roars, too, of course. Then again, with the musical’s director Michael Fentiman helming this adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book, it’s hardly unsurprising that the vision for this production draws comparisons to the dreamy Parisian romance.
And then there’s the matter of cast members Jez Unwin, Chris Jared, Oliver Grant, Rachel Dawson and Johnson Willis all returning to provide more gorgeous orchestrations. There’s fascinating puppetry (Grant’s grouchy Schrödinger the Cat and the giant Aslan puppet are highlights), and more whimsical characters with which to be acquainted (Willis’ Father Christmas with a pointy red hat is all too reminiscent of Amélie’s garden gnome).
We’re all familiar with the four main characters: pushy Peter (Ammar Duffus), sharp Susan (Robyn Sinclair), curious Lucy (Delainey Hayles) and deceptive… Edmund (Shaka Kolokoh). The latter won’t ever introduce himself as a result of some deep, internal shame, and Kolokoh excels in initially making his character deeply unlikeable in his cruel treatment of sweet Lucy.
Those familiar with the plot will know he eventually redeems himself in the battle against The White Witch (EastEnders and The Addams Family star Samantha Womack), but it feels odd and a missed opportunity not to have Edmund describe himself and who he would grow up to be when he becomes a King of Narnia.
Narnia, by the way, is astonishing. A sprinkling of snow from above, beautiful composition from Benji Bower and Barnaby Race, and gliding choreography courtesy of Shannelle Fergus – even the pianist comes without a seat for the most part, as they manoeuvre around the stage. The transitions, often in the form of slick illusions, are impressive, and tonally, the contrast between softly spoken dialogue (like that of Unwin’s heartwarming Mr Tumnus, or Womack’s Jadis, whose calmness hints at a rage boiling under the surface) and thunderous rhythm is so expertly managed. It’s hard to avoid hyperbole when Jack Knowles’ bright circular lighting against Tom Paris’ set is cinematic, ethereal and simply magical.
Yes, we’re deprived of Jared’s Aslan for the whole of Act One as per the narrative of Lewis’ book, but the wait is worth it. Max Humphries’ towering design of the lion is finely detailed, while the decision to have Jared stand by its side in a brown fur coat adds deeper emotion to the puppet – going beyond the static expression on its face. There’s practicalities behind the puppet-human double act too (namely around Aslan’s sacrifice later), and for an allegory about the Bible, the separation of Aslan into human and puppet is probably a reference to God’s three forms. Either way, it’s transcendental.
Fitting, then, that the most fascinating aspect of this production is a metaphor introduced by Willis’ giddy Professor Kirk to the children early on: that they must treat their mind as a “parachute” to keep it open. Fascinating, because settings like the Beavers’ hut and Mr Tumnus’ house are simply established with just one giant cloth – a parachute, you could say.
It comes full circle at the end of the show, when Professor Kirk tells the quartet about keeping their eyes open, and yet it’s not just theirs which have been widened with such a spectacle, but ours too.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 8 January 2023.
A British Sign Language-interpreted (BSL) performance will take place on 17 August.
Production Imagery: Matt Crockett.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.