witch and lion

Allison McKenzie (White Witch), Nuno Silva (Aslan), David Albury (Aslan Puppeteer) and James Charlton (Aslan Puppeteer). Pictures: Graeme Braidwood

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Birmingham Rep

****

C S LEWIS’S wintery world of kings, queens, talking animals, a wicked witch, battles and betrayal, all discovered at the back of an old wardrobe has been a firm children’s favourite novel since it first appeared in 1950.

Then, set in 1940 with four children being evacuated to the country in 1940 from the Blitz, the Second World War and evacuees would have still been very real in people’s minds, now it is rather quaint, perhaps adding to the mystical world Lewis created.

So Susan and Lucy Pevensie, played by Emilie Fleming and Leonie Elliot and older brother Peter and surly sibling Edmund, played by Michael Lanni and James Thackery, arrive at the rambling country pile of the kindly professor –we never did catch his name – played in avuncular fashion by Charles Armstrong.

The house is run, efficiently and sternly by Mrs MacCready played by Allison McKenzie who reappears beyond the wardrobe’s macs and mothballs as the White Witch of Narnia where she displays a voice which could break anvils and curdle milk when she is angered or disobeyed – you just had to love her.

The real world of the Prof’s house is all rather flat, literally, two dimensional and dull as a rainy Sunday holiday afternoon, which might make the world of Narnia filling the vast acreage of stage behind seem all the more magical and real, but does nothing to raise the interest levels in front.

Lucy is the first to discover Narnia and no one, except the Prof will believe her. Then Edmund finds it by accident while looking for Lucy and makes a pact with the devil, or at least the White Witch, who is probably worse, and then denies its existence. That boy is not to be trusted having sold the lives of his friends and siblings and the future of Narnia fobeaversr a packet of Turkish Delight.

Finally, all four, hiding from one of Mrs MacCready’s guided tours, stumble through the wardrobe and straight into the battle for not only Narnia but their very lives, good against evil.

Michael Lanni (Peter), Emilie Flemming (Lucy), Sophia Nomvete (Mrs Beaver), Thomas Aldridge (Mr Beaver) and Leonie Elliot (Susan)

Leading the forces of good is Aslan the lion, a giant three man operated puppet on nodding terms with Joey from War Horse. He might be the leader of the Narnia Liberation Front and old Aslan might have size on his side but he is a bit staid and short on charisma, dull even, although you can’t really knock him when he gives his own life to save that of the treacherous Edmund.

To be honest, given the choice, the old White Witch is much more fun, as long as you don’t mind being turned to stone if you upset her of course. She has her own entourage of a pack of wolves, which are cleverly animated puppets, for secret police, strange antlered creatures who pull her sleigh and another clever puppet of a dwarf who is the White Witch’s sleigh driver and a loyal servant who could possibly be Gollum’s long lost twin.

There are plenty of imaginative puppets in the production and, as with War Horse, it is remarkable how quickly you ignore the human puppeteers and see only the creatures.

And amid the pupets we also had human creatures, if you see what I mean, such as Jo Servi as the fawn Mr Tumnus, a spy of the witch who risks his life to save Lucy.

Then there are the fun Mr and Mrs Beaver, a bit like Pop and Ma Larkin, played by Thomas Aldridge and Sophie Nomvete, who has a fine, rich singing voice incidentally.

Despite the snowy scene the pair bring some real warmth and humour to the story as they lead us towards the final battle for Narnia, which in truth as all aqueen and edmund bit low key although there were some nice touches of theatrical trickery such as the splitting of the stone table which Aslan then repaired with the touch of a paw and, best of all, the lion’s disappearance from under a sheet after his supposed death at the hands of your friendly neighbourhood wicked witch.

Lewis’s story has been examined for its religious undertones, an allegory of the story of Christ, a battle of good and evil, a betrayal of brothers and sisters and the leader Aslam by Edmund and of course Aslam sacrifice to save the sins of the world, or at least the miserable little toad Edmund.

Allison McKenzie (White Witch) and JameThackerey (Edmund)

But Adrian Mitchell’s 2008 adaptation dwells on none of that and concentrates of producing a rollicking children’s adventure of goodies and baddies with the good guys winning in the end.

Jamie Vartan’s design is clever; creating a normal world and a fantasy frozen wasteland on the same stage is always going to be a challenge. He adds to the illusion with steady snow falling on the Narnia of permanent winter with no Christmas, although Father Christmas does pop up as the witch’s power starts to fade and vast white sheets cunningly slide away to reveal grass and flowers as spring appears was a nice touch.

The Beaver’s house, and stone table on lifts were also imaginative additions creating new sets on the fly and it was all helped by clever lighting from Colin Grenfell. I swear there was a chill swept through the audience every time we were taken to the bleak, snowy wastes of Narnia.

A splendid seven-piece orchestra under Neil MacDonald playing Shaun Davey’s music all added to the evening and Tessa Walker’s direction kept everything moving along nicely.

So with a strong cast and direction, clever puppets from Jo Larkin and Mervyn Millar, imaginative, well-lit set and a production beautifully presented all the elements were there – except one. There was no emotional involvement or charm. Apart from the wonderful Beavers, it was all a bit too intense and serious, too proper to connect with the characters, but from the cheers that greeted the end kids loved it so who am I to moan. If it introduces children to the magic of theatre that is just brilliant.

The age recommendation, incidentally, is six plus. The Rep’s Christmas offering is not particularly scary, its more an adventure tale, so a good age guide would be to ask yourself if your child is old enough for the book as the play follows the narrative closely. To 16-01-16

Roger Clarke

26-11-15 

Another point of view - Second review

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