The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

C S Lewis, Stage Adaptation by Theresa Heskins
Lyceum Theatre Company
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe

It's difficult to find a simpler way to get into the spirit of the festive season than enjoying a good Christmas play. The Lyceum has always made sure work of the season, and it's always with anticipation I await to see its Christmas offering.

To fill this year's honour, the Lyceum has opted to bring C S Lewis's classic children's novel The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the stage, telling the story of the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, who having been sent to an old country mansion to avoid the horrors of the Blitz, find an aging wardrobe, and through it, a magical land.

In the land of Narnia, they must hide from the evil White Witch and gain help from the mighty Aslan to take their prophecised place as Kings and Queens.

It's a story familiar to almost every child born in the UK during the 65 years since the book was first published. It brings together a quintessential Britishness and a seasonal cheer, not least hammered home by the fact that Father Christmas himself makes an appearance mid-way through the story to dole out presents.

At best, a theatrical reimagining of the book would result in a family-friendly production that merges magic, song, dance and a story that brings together the depths of winter's chill, the exuberance of childhood whim and no shortage of thinly-veiled religious allegory into the mix. It's also a tale that in the wrong hands could become horribly didactic, or painfully thinly stretched.

Luckily, Theresa Heskins's reliable adaptation is as solid a foundation with which to begin and the creative team at The Lyceum has built upon it a wonderfully jolly romp that eschews much of the musty religious overtones and concentrates on the adventure and magic of the land of Narnia.

Composer and Lyricist Claire MacKenzie and Scott Gilmour have also woven a set of original songs into the mix to ensure that even the most fidgety and irate of children were kept rapt throughout. The musical element never threatens to overwhelm the rest of the play, as can often happen in these sorts of family festive pieces; instead it punctuates the action at relevant moments, such as the opening departure on the train, and the confrontation between the Witch and Aslan at the Stone Table.

There's also a physicality to the piece, as the songs are filled with dance and movement, and the final battles are accomplished through a balletic interpretation. In addition, Ben Onwukwe's Aslan rarely stands still long; reimagined as a form of African animal deity with leopard-print clothing and a mane of lustrous dreadlocks, he lopes and wheels about the stage magestically in his scenes.

A word must also be said about the simple and effective use of staging and scenery, with a giant wooden wall of book-shelves and free-standing doorframes which the actors gleefully vault and spin around, forming the backdrop of the old house, while the wintry Narnia is evoked with the simplicity of towering tree trunks and a steady sprinkle of snow.

Christian Ortega, Claire-Marie Seddon, James Rottger and Charlotte Miranda Smith manage to shine in their roles as the Pevensie children Edmund, Lucy, Peter and Susan, each sweetly maintaining the façade of childhood without ever falling into mugging or caricature of childishness. Each performs their own part of the quartet succinctly and with a warmth that feels familial.

It's by nature of the story that a larger portion of work falls to Seddon and Ortega, playing the younger siblings, who adventure alone into the Wardrobe earlier on and especially the character of Edmund, who out of all the dramatis personae is one of few characters with a visible arc.

The rest of the cast provide great support across the board, with especially great work from Pauline Knowles as the White Witch and Lewis Howden as her sleigh driver. Howden also manages to steal almost the best laughs of the play with his thick Scottish brogue and some wonderfully timed affected mannerisms.

It's a fine piece of theatre and one that the children will love, while the adults can muse on the nostalgia and enjoy the artistic interpretations. See it if you can, as in Scotland, it only feels like eternal winter and Christmas will be around before you know it.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan