Beyond the lamppost – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review

‘But do you really mean, sir,’ said Peter, ‘that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?’

If you had wandered into the Watkins Hall one evening last week, sometime soon after seven o’clock, you would have seen on your left as you turned the corner into the theatre, a lamp-post. It was lit up, minding its own business in the corner, just like the one beyond the back of the wardrobe, which marks the boundaries between this world and the magical world of Narnia. And so it was with this production: we stepped out of a mild but dank December evening into an enchanted place, where Jenny Wafer’s skilful adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, captivated us for the evening.

The set was intriguing. There it was, the wardrobe, in a kind of gallery on the forestage, with curtained entrances on either side. The reveal, as Lucy stepped into Narnia, was enchanting: the wardrobe doors turned and the walls opened out to disclose frost-bound trees and projected snowflakes falling over a beautifully painted backdrop, with pennons fluttering over distant Cair Paravel over an icy sea. Later, the heap of snow upstage revolved to reveal the Witch Queen on her throne. The whiteness of the spectacle was dazzling. In the interval, the throne was removed and replaced by the stone table on which Aslan permitted himself to be put to death. All this was not only ingenious but beautifully executed. Congratulations to all involved in design, construction and lighting. A special word for Ted Latus whose lighting was imaginatively designed – I particularly liked the warming of the light as the witch’s power declines – and I loved the music, designed by Jonathan Kobrus and Jenny Wafer. I’m a sucker for the Big Band sound.

The show opened with Chamberlain’s lugubrious declaration of war in 1939, followed by an air raid siren, and then the children walked up on stage, a quartet of well-bred evacuees. Peter, wholesome and responsible, was played admirably by Aidan Turner and Nicole Lyttle gave us a Susan who was empathetic and jolly sensible. I hugely enjoyed Finley O’Sullivan’s leggy performance of Edmund, petulant, independent, naughty, self-indulgent, and a bit of a bully, whose weaknesses make him vulnerable to the White Witch’s thrall. Yet, Finley played him as amiable and essentially redeemable, and we knew he would come good in the end. His sulks and tantrums were also very funny, as was the devious look that crept into his eye as Turkish Delight was put in front of him. Hannah Secker, as Lucy, was, I thought, quite delightful and one of the finest performances in a very talented cast. Her vitality, curiosity and innocence were abundant in her movement and expression and you could readily believe her a few years younger than her actual age.

Once in Narnia, our first encounter is with Mr Tumnus, played by Stephenson Catney. His wonderful bush of hair needed no addition by the make-up department, apart from a pair of charming white horns. From the moment he dropped his brown paper parcels to the moment he is released from the White Witch’s spell, Mr Tumnus was a treasure. Stephenson conveyed the struggle between attempts at slyness and his genuine decency with doleful eyes and panicky little twitches of his fingers. He is too honest to keep to himself the Witch’s demand that he kidnap any humans and blurts it all out. I particularly liked his monologue, accompanied by woodwind, where he tells of how Narnia used to be, and the coming of the White Queen, and how the whole land is imprisoned in ice.

Lucy, is also succoured, on her first visit to Narnia, by a pair of timorous but courageous beavers, played charmingly by Jacob Baker and Poppy Wells. Indeed the whole wood is inhabited by creatures: there were squirrels (Olivia Parkinson, Felicity Waddingham, Zoe Lyttle and Sasha Neesham – some of whom doubled up as a robin, an eagle and as wolves); there was a fox (Poppy Rogers) and there were mythical creatures too: Tilly Mair was a Dryad and Olivia Webb a Naiad, whilst Sophia McGill was a unicorn. These actors not only played their roles as agents or victims of the Witch, but they were also responsible for the seamless movement of furniture and properties about the stage and for the transformations from England to Narnia and back again. This fluid ensemble work, under the experienced stage management of Caitlin O’Beirne, Sebastian Newell and Joshua Mackey is a trademark of Jenny Wafer’s productions and is an excellent testimony to her belief that everybody counts.

Other supporting roles included Gracie-Mai Woods starched and bossy Miss MaCready and the rather more child-friendly maids, Ivy and Betty, played by Olivia Webb and Tilly Mair. Gracie-Mai also played a viciously prowling Maugrim, with impressive versatility. Seth Birkinshaw played both a rambunctious Father Christmas with a marvellously fruity voice, and an evil, gloating wolf, while the giant Rumblebuffin was played by a huge puppet, voiced by Ted Latus.

Of course, the White Witch was Amber Ackerman’s dream role and she inhabited it perfectly. Her smiles dripped malice and her uneven temper was credibly terrifying. In a sumptuous costume of dazzling white, she commanded the stage, emanating pure, unadulterated evil. Her corruption of Edmund was icily vile as was her slaughter of Aslan with three sacramental blows. She was accompanied in her malevolence by a nasty little piece of work called Grumpskin, played with slithering agility by Katie Care. Katie seems often to be counter-cast as malevolent. Last year she played the obnoxious Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and I have it on reliable authority that she has already played Lady Macbeth. What depths of depravity she will sink to in the future, I cannot say.

Finally, the White Witch’s court was guarded by a pair of vicious little crow guards played by Jacqui Henes and Esther Yip.

The portrayal of Aslan presents certain difficulties. A lion costume would be ridiculous and would turn the whole thing into panto. This production settled for a militaristic outfit in leather, a magnificent mane, and Charlie Servonat-Blanc’s strong acting. Charlie managed to convey the paradox at the heart of the character: he must be gentle, patient and wise, willing to endure the supreme sacrifice, and yet he is a being of immense power. Charlie conveyed the latter when he roared, loud enough to compete with the amplified roar of a real lion through the speakers. Yet, his shining benevolence is what triumphs. The biblical allegory that lies behind the story was clear and yet, wisely, this production did not labour it.

I will end with the ending. Charlie also played the children’s guardian, an eccentric and rather distrait academic. His squeaky voice and pernickety mannerisms were a treat. It was a masterstroke in Jenny Wafer’s adaptation to have the Professor end the show by opening the wardrobe, from which magical light leaks, and to have him slip, with twinkling eyes, inside.

View a gallery from the production here.