Jessica Harris is enchanted by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The Birmingham Rep has worked magic in this year’s Christmas production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Extraordinary stage effects, classy music and high-energy dance run throughout. Yet the show stays true to CS Lewis’ original story, keeping the spotlight on the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. And a spotlight on what it is to be a child on the verge of an adult world; what it is to glimpse into a realm just beyond their familiar territory; what it is to have a child’s sense of curiosity, fear and, finally, hope, as they discover what this world looks like.
The key characters of the world of Narnia are all in this production: from Mr Tomnus the Faun, to Mr & Mrs Beaver, to Maugrim the Wolf, Captain of the White Witch’s Secret Police. Forces for good – satyrs, stags and other creatures – abound, as do the Evils of the White Witch, some bringing touches of Gollum to their performance.
And, of course, there is the White Witch herself, dazzling in furs and jewel-encrusted white dress, and Aslan, the Lion, who appears in both human and puppet form.
The context in which The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is set is used to great effect. Evacuated to a large and creepy house during the Second World War, the four children are worried for their father who is away fighting. Staging and costumes reflect this with Mr & Mrs Beaver dressed in flying suits and goggles, and the Evils wearing helmets. The White Witch enters on a gun carriage, raised above the stage. Dressed in a long fur coat with icicles on her head, she appears about ten feet tall. As she flies high above the stage in display of her full powers, her skirts tumble to earth like a parachute falling.
Masks and puppetry are wonderful. On first entrance, Maugrim’s mask resembles a gas mask whilst, in the battle scene, the Evils have terrifying animal skulls. Schroedinger, the cat, however, brings a sense of reassurance to things with frequent comic appearances. Both of Aslan’s representations, human and puppet, have soft brown manes and gentle faces. Yet the swinging tail of the puppet form shows clearly how he feels.
A sense of foreboding is established at the outset, with rapid piano music and subdued lighting. The use of cut-out circles above and to the side of the stage enable cameo appearances which bring a multi-dimensional feel to the world of Narnia. The presence of the White Stag above the stage is a moment in itself.
Song and dance numbers are strong, with musicians on stage for much of the time. ‘Beware the Witch’ at the end of Act One and a Scottish reel at the end of Act Two are particularly enjoyable. The doubling of acting roles with roles of musicians gives the sense of a far larger cast than is the case and is testament to the many skills of the performers.
Lewis’ book has long been seen as an allegory for the story of Christ’s betrayal, death and resurrection. But the focus of this show is a message of hope, and of how, even at the darkest times, good will prevail over evil. And a message that children, as they encounter difficulties and challenges, will learn and grow from their experiences.
Performances by all four children are strong. Peter is played by Daniel Apea and Susan by Liyah Summers. Jerome Scott presents a particularly sulky Edmund, who eventually changes for the better, whilst Kudzai Mangombe is an endearing Lucy, and a truly bright light on stage. Cath Whitefield is very impressive as the White Witch.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was produced in association with Elliott & Harper Productions and Catherine Schreiber. It was directed by Michael Fentiman and based on the original production by Sally Cookson.
This production is definitely one to add to your festive celebrations. It runs at The Rep until 28th January 2024. For further information visit Birmingham-rep.co.uk
Pics – Mark Senior.