William Nicholson
Birdsong Productions in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Amanda Ryan as Joy, Shannon Rewcroft as Douglas, Denis Lill as Major W.H. Lewis (Warnie) and Stephen Boxer as Jack Credit: Jack Ladenburg
Stephen Boxer and Amanda Ryan Credit: Jack Ladenburg
Shannon Rewcroft and Denis Lill Credit: Jack Ladenburg

Loosely based on the true love story between C S Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) and the much younger American poet Joy Gresham, this play charts the progress of their slowly blossoming love from its extremely unlikely beginnings to the tragically devastating conclusion.

Beautifully written with sympathy and understanding, Nicholson brings the characters vividly to life while skilfully managing to avoid overstatement or over sentimentality, and there’s plenty of humour along the way as the reserved and formal English Oxford Don finds himself rather at a loss with his outspoken new companion.

The play begins with Stephen Boxer playing the role of Lewis naturally and unassumingly as if he is the man himself. Concerned with Christianity and the question of why a supposedly loving God allows all the suffering in the world, he is lecturing to a group of academic students on his thoughts on the matter, never having been exposed to real suffering himself.

She, on the other hand, has had a lot more experience of life being married to an alcoholic philanderer and, having explored Judaism, Communism and Atheism before embracing Christianity, they have very different ways of looking at the world.

Lewis’s brother Warren (played here by Denis Lill) wrote, “for Jack, the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.”

Amanda Ryan brings all of these attributes to the role of Joy, and with her often acerbic comments she is more that a match for some of Lewis’s colleagues, particularly scathing to Simon Shackleton’s Professor Christopher Riley.

As a fan of his writing, they have corresponded for some time before her visit to England and a suggestion that they meet at a hotel for tea. Jack is rather reluctant, but in view of the correspondence he feels under an obligation, taking his brother along just to be on the safe side.

It is he who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, taking children into fantasy worlds where each new world is better than the one before, the real world being but a shadowy reflection preparing us for the next. Could this be his version of Eternity?

Joy’s young son Douglas (Shannon Rewcroft) is fascinated by the books and we too get a glimpse of Narnia as he climbs through a window looking for some magic to heal his ailing mother.

With amazing dexterity and inventiveness, the sets are changed for the many venues required. A magnificently solid and sturdy set of a beautifully oak panelled hall is the permanent backdrop, and the production is so exceptionally well directed (Alastair Whatley) that in a matter of moments we are transported from the lecture hall to the senior Common Room, to Lewis’s study and then to tea at the hotel.

Nothing seems rushed, all achieved swiftly but very calmly, and with the help of Alex Wardle’s expert lighting the focus of the action completely changes each time, all so natural and unforced.

It takes only two garden chairs to represent a relaxed sunny afternoon when Jack astounds Warnie with the casually mentioned, “I’ve agreed to marry her” but this is purely for expedience to allow the newly divorced Joy to remain in England when her visa has expired, yet these two contrasting characters find something in the other which at first attracts and then gradually turns to love.

It is the sudden shock of Joy’s debilitating terminal illness which makes Jack realise how much he really loves her. “Look what it takes to make me see sense,” and the response “did I overdo it?”

This is a beautiful production, involving, intriguing and very moving with everyone living their roles so convincingly, showing every nuance of feeling. A superb beginning to their tour.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

Are you sure?