Is it the play, the production, the players - or a combination of all three - that is pulling large audiences nightly to Salisbury Playhouse, currently featuring William Nicholsons potent account of C.S Lewiss tragic love story, Shadowlands?
The answer lies perhaps even deeper in Joanna Reads excellent production which opens the companys spring season.
For Shadowlands is a play to which audiences do not come on chance. They either want to see it or they dont. Who would choose to spend two and a half hours listening to a dry old bachelor lecturing on pain as Gods messenger to a deaf world unless they cared about the issues which are central to the play?
The distinguished company assembled for this production is a tour-de-force in itself which alone does credit to this Wiltshire theatre. Lewis himself or Jack as he prefers to be known is played by the vastly experienced Julian Glover, surely a delight for any director, while Lisa Eichorn, an actress who has spent much of her career in America, is the unpopular writer from the US who enters his life with such finality, the scene is set for disharmony and, ultimately, tragedy.
The crotchety, squabbling brains who accept the articulate Jack, for his sharp wit and childrens stories, have grown accustomed to his bachelor nature and are clearly none too keen to see their singular cause swallowed up by some nondescript poet from the States! As for marriage
But Jack, it transpires, is made of sterner stuff and not about to be denied his great love by small men.
Death is another matter but even that Jack is prepared to challenge, taking on the Church, as well as his cold, platonic society in the process.
For all the gloom of the text, and it might have been written as well as inspired by the writers view of life through a glass darkly, Glover is a thoroughly engaging Jack. Often irritable with colleagues, as only they deserve, yet honest and when it comes to the crunch, very loving with the ill-fated Joy who, through Lisa Eichorn, only truly comes into her own in the bitter second half. The excellent performance of Daniel Simmons as schoolboy son Douglas Gresham (sharing the role with Oliver Jones), is much more than merely make-weight as this is a rounded story of shared vulnerability.
Lewis fame as creator of The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, must have a lot to do with the huge commercial success that has grown around this, essentially, sad story. A dry subject for academic discipline, bleak exchanges around high table and a romantic meeting of minds that flares only briefly before being quite painfully snuffed out not normally the stuff around which eloquent dreams or great dramas are formed.
Unless, of course, they are Greek!
The production continues until Saturday 10th February with Matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays
Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole