The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Devised by the company, based on the novel by C S Lewis

West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with Elliott & Harper Productions and Catherine Schreiber

Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 29 November 2017 to 27 January 2018

Review by Mark Smith

West Yorkshire Playhouse’s main-stage Christmas show is not exactly an anti-panto, but it is a breath—no, a roar—of fresh air in the busy festive season. Sally Cookson is at the helm, building on the successes of Jane Eyre, Peter Pan and La Strada as well as a host of Christmas shows at the Bristol Old Vic and elsewhere.

Cookson describes C S Lewis’s novel as something of a grab-bag of mythologies and fairy tales, and this production embraces and amplifies this mixed heritage with an eclectic set of imagery and scenes: beautiful puppetry sits side by side with aerial performers; street dancing juxtaposes World War Two-era costume. Father Christmas tap dances his way through a folk song. It’s the product of thirty or so creative imaginations set free by Cookson’s open and sprightly devising approach, and it’s continuously wondrous.

As if combining all of these disparate elements and creative forces into a single coherent interpretation of a much-loved children’s story was not enough of a brainteaser, Cookson has set herself further challenges. The most striking of these is the conversion of the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre into an in-the-round configuration for the first time in its near thirty-year history.

Given a story which depends upon transformation, magic and otherworldliness, this in itself is a bold choice. Never settling for the obvious way out, Cookson’s direction, Rae Smith’s endlessly inventive design and Bruno Poet’s lighting combine to create the show’s many moments of wonder: a mystery-filled country house, the frosty, arcane magic of the White Witch, a snowy woodland emerging at the back of a dusty wardrobe…

This is truly an ensemble creation, though commanding performances by Iain Johnstone as Aslan and Carla Mendonça as the aforementioned icy antagonist captivate, without dominating. Mendonça is fearsome and statuesque in her portrayal of the malign spirit of eternal winter, cackling chillingly and commanding her grotesque band of creatures through genuinely spooky incantations. Johnstone’s appearance as Aslan, again supported by excellent design, is fittingly proud, powerful and calming. The production hints at a spiritual power without playing on the Christian overtones with which the Narnia novels are often most strongly associated.

Whether through childhood reading or thanks to one of the several TV and film adaptations, the story has a familiar warmth for many. This production incorporates a large quantity of the original book’s memorable scenes and characters without feeling rushed in its timing. It centres touchingly on the four siblings’ journey—not only into the wardrobe, but from distrust and rivalry to strength in numbers and understanding. These four—Patricia Allison, Michael Jean-Marain, Cora Kirk and John Leader—have been updated with the lightest of touches. They still begin as evacuees from WWII London, with a thrilling train sequence leading us into this world of imaginative staging.

By the end, they have been crowned kings and queens of Narnia, and we have encountered a menagerie of memorable characters. The show climaxes in a riot of colour, dance and infectious fun. Though this is no pantomime, the tone becomes dafter and the audience is gently encouraged to engage and participate, with the stage / auditorium barrier subtly melted on a number of occasions. And there are several moments which drew genuine gasps and cheers from the packed theatre.

Music also plays a key role in the tale, with a score composed by Benji Bower and performed (and partially created) by Will Bower, Tim Dalling and Ruth Hammond. The dizzying melting pot of styles continues here, with the music encompassing compositions which sound in turn like ancient folk standards, Nick Cave numbers, ghostly atmospherics and even Depeche Mode.

The musicians, the design, the whole ensemble are all crucial to the creation of this often stunning, funny, uplifting piece of theatre. Johnstone and Mendonça are superb, Tim Dalling’s turn as Father Christmas is supremely entertaining, and Amalia Vitale takes on a number of supporting roles, such as the White Witch’s most vocal minion, Bog, which are all beautifully differentiated and winningly comic. Ira Mandela Siobhan plays henchman (or hench-wolf) Maugrim as a body-popping shapeshifter, with a physicality which walks a line between oddly comic and just downright odd; it’s a fittingly scary and incredibly physical performance.

Overall, then, this is a daring adaptation which sets itself a number of challenges and finds creative and theatrically magical solutions to all of them. The physicalities of the ensemble and the imaginations of the designers combine to generate that elusive beast: a guilt-free, feel-good, invigorating Christmas treat. Time in Narnia works differently from that in our mundane realm, and the evening simply flies by.