Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C S Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2004)

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I did my level best to enjoy Ian Brown's production but failed to do so for three reasons.

Firstly, I'm convinced that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of those books, supposedly written for children, that appeal mainly to nostalgic adults. I detested the novel when I read it at the age of nine and have never met anyone who didn't find it preachy, frightening or incomprehensible.

Secondly, I'm old enough to remember the Comic Strip send-up of Enid Blyton's Famous Five. There is something inherently funny about an adult dressed up as a schoolboy or schoolgirl - I kept expecting Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter to smuggle Timmy the dog into the Professor's house or demand lashings of ginger beer with their tea.

Thirdly, Adrian Mitchell has committed the cardinal sin of cramming a handful of awful songs into an adaptation that simply doesn't need them, presumably for the sole purpose of generating an original cast album. Edmund's hymn of praise to Turkish Delight may well put you off that particular sweetmeat for life.

In all fairness, I have to admit that Mitchell has made an efficient job of adapting C S Lewis' novel for the stage and the cast really do give their all. Ian Conningham is a delightful Mr Tumnus and Michael Skyers (despite being lumbered with a wig that makes him look like Tina Turner) is a suitably noble Aslan. The animal characters have obviously benefited from the movement work of Faroque Khan, who did such a remarkable job on the 2004 Christmas show The Wind in the Willows. Yet this year's production left me cold, and not just because in Narnia it's always winter but never Christmas.

For the benefit of those who were never given a copy of the book by a well-meaning relative, Narnia is ruled by a self-styled Queen - the White Witch - who has turned the land into a dictatorship complete with a Gestapo-like secret police force. Yet the sinister atmosphere and constant sense of danger, which come across so vividly in the book, are curiously absent from this production; Ellen O'Grady's White Witch certainly looks the part, but she's nowhere near as frightening as Cruella de Ville. Titanic battles between Good and Evil tend to lose their force when Good's victory looks so easy.

Ruari Murchison's designs are also part of the problem. For much of the time the stage is bare except for two revolving staircases (shades of the Harry Potter films?) and a few items of furniture, including the famous wardrobe. Video images are projected onto a slanted screen and a strange object resembling a flying saucer, and although some of them are undeniably beautiful - especially the crystal castle of Cair Paravel - I don't go to the theatre to watch big-screen TV. There are a few inspired touches, such as Lucy's entrance into Narnia through a forest of huge white fur coats, and the high-heeled reindeer pulling the White Witch's sleigh are captivatingly camp. But compared to previous WYP Christmas offerings, not to mention the average panto, Lion has a Utility look which may be in keeping with its wartime setting but isn't exactly a feast for the eyes.

I couldn't help noticing that adults in the audience seemed much more involved in the action than children - the nostalgia factor again! - and that some of the less impressive stage effects were greeted with unkind laughter by kids brought up on a visual diet of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I doubt if this production will sow the seeds of regular theatre-going in many members of its young audience.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson