The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
C.S. Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell
St Stephen's, Belsize Park
The opening production at this new venue, the former St Stephen's Church, built in 1869 on Hampstead Green and refurbished at a cost of £4 million, is a revival of the dramatisation of Lewis's Christian allegory originally produced in 1998 by the RSC. Lewis might have been pleased to see it in a church, but this straightforward production by John Risebero and Ben Horsten does not emphasis its moral and religious subtext but treats it as a lively adventure fantasy.
Risebero's designs are simple but extremely effective with a beautifully ornate wardrobe providing the gateway to Narnia and the minimum of props and scenic elements (including a striking throne for Alice Fernbank's haughty White Witch) and at one point opening up the set to the whole chancel to magical effect. Sound effects and music help lift this production which carefully and precisely lit and it is sumptuously dressed with animals suggested by part masks or costume details and lion Aslan with a mane of golden dreadlocks and the robes of an African prince.
Obloma Ugoala's Aslan looks and moves splendidly which makes me forgive him for sometimes swallowing the middle of sentences. When he has got used to this acoustic and does not need to shout this can become a strong performance. The supporting cast are wonderfully immobile when turned to stone and there is a huggable Beaver couple from Nicola Delaney and the delightful Chris David Storer. Simon Pennicott makes the witch's attendant Grumpskin a capering grotesque, keeping it just the right side of panto and Ross Hugill's engagingly scurrying Mr Tumnus is as much quivering rodent as faun.
An immaculately white-whiskered James Pellow looks straight out of a picture book as Professor Kirk, the indulgent elder of fiction, and the four children at the centre of the story have a similarly quality - adults playing children of the imagination. Little Lucy with her pigtails and bulging bosom made me think of Judy Garland pretending to be a pre-pubescent Dorothy and Lorna Stuart's Susan even more physically mature. But they are dressed to be children and with Tom Radford and Dylan Kennedy's Peter and Edward give their characters a juvenile naivety and vitality with which youngsters (who seemed strangely lacking in the first night audience) should easily identify.
It is a simple story, which will already be well known to most of the audience, that is presented here with theatrical panache. From the opening air-raid with its searchlights it uses the simplest means to suggest the children's evacuation and there arrival in their new home. By establishing a style adds effect to its strong visual statements that makes them seem more spectacular.
Antic Disposition had already staged two productions here in the then derelict church: now that work is (nearly) completed and the building restored to its red and ochre brickwork glory how does it work theatrically? It is a very large church and with a flat floor and a stepped sanctuary has a dominant vista but for this production a high stage has been build beneath the choir arch which gives reasonable sight lines even to un-raked seating which is placed only in the nave (pillars would block many seats in the aisles) but does not extend its full length. The building does demand great projection and vocal clarity from the actors, and some passages were spoken too fast for higher pitched female voices to be easily understood and one ensemble song was barely comprehensible, though fortunately its repetitions revealed its meaning. There is a challenge here but familiarity with the space will help the actors meet it.
At the moment there is no black-out to the windows - and with the clerestory especially it will be difficult to install it without spoiling the look of the building or inserting inappropriate fittings. Black-out scene changes will be problematic when daylight hours are longer or for matinees. However, the space could be used in many different ways, not just as an end stage, and for their next production there Antic Disposition plan to use the whole length of the nave as acting area and, of course, this could be an excellent space for promenade productions. Inevitably the architecture carries strong associations and it will be interesting to see how that is used or countered in future work here.
Hampstead and its environs already have a number of small fringe venues, as well as the Hampstead Theatre at Swiss Cottage and the Tricycle and Shaw not far distant. This new venue provides a very different space. Antic Disposition are described as the resident company but they plan only two other productions this year. The venue is also being made available for non-theatrical events such as concerts, exhibitions and conferences but offers the possibility of accommodating larger audiences than most fringe venues for other companies looking for somewhere to mount productions. A couple of miles to the east St George's Tufnell Park was another church converted into a theatre, no longer used as such. Perhaps location and adaptability will help St Stephen's to a theatrical future.
Until 19th April, 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton