Some of the earliest memories that I can remember are of my mum, sat with myself and my brother at bedtime, reading C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I have, quite literally, loved the fantasy world of Narnia for as long as I remember.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that I got tickets to this stage adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as soon as they came on sale in 2019. Sadly, due to the pandemic, I had to wait two years to watch it. The wait was more than worth it though!
As a complete Narnian geek, it is so beautiful to see Lewis’ world rendered on stage with care and a real love for the original material. It remains incredibly faithful to the novel, using a unique blend of onstage actor-musicians, puppetry, aerial performance, dance and expressive movement. Combined, they create a spectacular, spellbinding experience that is theatrically stunning to watch. If I wasn’t wearing a face mask during the performance, you would’ve been able to see an enraptured grin on my face from start to finish.
I wasn’t expecting The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to have as many musical numbers as it did, but the music composed by Benji Bower and Barnaby Race suits Narnia so well, with its Celtic influences and beautiful piano segments. It is incredibly reminiscent of the score that Harry Gregson-Williams wrote for the 2005 film. It captures the same timeless, mythical feeling of Lewis’ fantasy realm and is performed to perfection by an incredibly talented ensemble of actor-musicians onstage.
I’m not surprised to find that many of the actors in this production were also in the stage musical adaptation of Amélie, because The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe utilises the musicians in the same way, as they dance and move seamlessly with their instruments, which is an impressive feat given that some actors are playing the double-bass or cello.
Shanelle ‘Tali’ Fergus‘ impeccable choreography brings a fluidity to a performance that could have been quite clunky, given the large array of instruments being moved around on stage. However, everything is integrated beautifully. Notably, the famous lamppost magically appears from the piano, sending goosebumps up my spine.
Stepping into Tilda Swinton’s shoes must be an impossible task, as she was absolutely perfect as the White Witch, Jadis. Samantha Womack is the actress who has the difficult job to better her in this production. She excels in the softer scenes, where her character craftily manipulates Edmund. Womack has some stunning costumes, and there’s a sense of deliberation and regality in her movement. Effectively laying on the charm, it is easy to see how Jadis wins over the ‘Son of Adam’.
Sadly, Womack just isn’t menacing enough as the evil Queen of Narnia. The delivery of her most powerful, intimidating dialogue falls flat, resulting in her performance doing the same. This is particularly noticeable with her confrontation with Aslan, which ended up being anti-climactic, despite the extraordinary array of puppetry and costumes making a plethora of evil creatures taking part in the ceremony.
Instead, the play’s menace comes from Maugrim, Jadis’ chief of police, played terrifyingly by Michael Ahomka-Lindsay. I have always been scared of this character, but with stilts jarring the actor’s movement, an intimidating mask, and voice distortion, the wolf is more frightening than the he has ever been.
Chris Jared shares the role of Aslan with a puppet, controlled by puppeteers Oliver Bingham, Oliver Grant, and Shaun McCourt. This is where the play completely misfires for me. Having two separate Aslans makes it difficult to identify and emotionally connect with either of them. Rather than believing that the puppet of Aslan is a real character, it feels like a meaningless aesthetic, which is only there to provide spectacle.
Whilst impressive, the puppet of Aslan feels totally underused, as the cast react and communicate with the actor, Chris Jared, rather than interacting with the puppet. It is also particularly annoying that the puppet isn’t even brought on at the end for the cast’s bow. It’s almost as if it is entirely forgotten about after the battle for Narnia.
Having watched the phenomenal stage adaptation War Horse, I have seen that it is possible to fully render a character through puppetry, and make the audience have an emotional connection with them. But, disappointingly, it was lacking here. This is taking nothing away from Chris Jared‘s performance as the human side of Aslan. He has a commanding voice and stage presence. There’s also a beautiful, moving, heartfelt moment where he poignantly presses his head up against the head of the puppet, creating a bond that is all too brief.
All adaptations of Narnia hinge on one thing… The casting of the Pevensie family. In this production, they are perfectly cast. Ammar Duffus is authoritative as Peter, without being too bossy, and he grows naturally into a warrior as events unfold. ‘Daughter of Eve’, Susan, is a character that I often find overbearing. Yet Robyn Sinclair‘s portrayal of Susan is more endearing, playing the character as a geeky young woman, rather than the matriarchal prude seen in other adaptations. Shaka Kalokoh shows genuine remorse as Edmund, having betraying his family, and impressively captures his character’s arc.
It is Lucy’s character, though, who sells us Narnia. Our entire belief in Lewis’ world is dependent on her initial entrance into the magical kingdom through the wardrobe. Karise Yansen seems impervious to this pressure and delivers a performance full of wonder and innocent joy. Her friendship with Jez Unwin‘s Mr Tumnus is endearing and entirely believable, and I was astonished to discover that this is Yansen’s stage debut. She perfectly embodies the personality that enables her character to be crowned ‘Lucy the Valiant’.
Although I have some slight misgivings, they aren’t enough to spoil the production too much. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is spellbinding. It a visual and musical spectacle, beautifully staged and technically stunning. I honestly loved it so much, I was already planning my return visit during the interval.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is at The Lowry until 15th January. For more information, please visit The Lowry’s website.