Joy and Jack

Amanda Ryan as Joy and Stephen Boxer as Jack. Pictures: Jack Ladenburg

Shadowlands

Malvern Theatres

*****

'PAIN is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world!’ This statement by C.S.Lewis in Shadowlands highlights a major theme in this play - pain and suffering.

He opens the play with a lecture to undergraduates on this theme, and the play explores the topic through the pain of Joy Gresham’s illness and death and its impact on Lewis himself.

Shadowlands portrays a period in the life of famous author C.S. Lewis, an academic bachelor in his 50s, whose world is transformed by his relationship with a divorced woman from the United States.

Joy Gresham begins a correspondence with the renowned author of the Narnia books and, accompanied by her son Douglas, Shannon Rewcroft, she gets herself invited to tea with him in Oxford.

Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, is accompanied by his brother Major W.H. Lewis, known as Warnie,  a retired military man, with whom he lives in a shared house in Headington, Oxford.

Slowly the very formal and socially restrained Jack becomes drawn into a relationship with Joy, whose alcoholic and adulterous husband decides to divorce her. He agrees to marry her ‘technically’ to enable her to get residency in the UK.

Subsequently she discovers she has a serious form of bone cancer and has a limited time to live. This precipitates a massive change in Jajack and his brotherk. He discovers a capacity to love that he had never known. He becomes more fully human and experiences the extremes of elation and devastation, of love, intimacy, shared pain and ultimately loss.

They enjoy a period of time, some of which is spent in Greece, when her condition is in remission and they are able to deepen their relationship of love and friendship.

Jack, the academic and creative author, the theologian who wrote and taught about God and suffering and love, experiences the highs and lows of human emotions in a way that challenges his faith and his tidy reasoning about life and God, but through it all, he becomes both more human and discovers ultimately a more profound faith.

Stephen Boxer as C.S. Lewis and Denis Lill as Major W.H. Lewis

This production is beautifully written by William Nicholson, adapted from his 1985 BBC TV film. The dialogue includes many witty exchanges and there is plenty of humour to spice a moving narrative. The chauvinistic dons discussing women and the mutual teasing among characterful men of differing beliefs provide many laughs in the audience.

There is irony aplenty in the bold and open manner of the American Joy when she encounters the stiff, formal and reserved Englishmen.

At the centre of this production Stephen Boxer plays Jack (C.S. Lewis) and Amanda Ryan plays Joy Gresham.

Their performances are wonderfully modulated. Jack moves from the restrained, very English intellectual to a man of deep and intense, though strongly controlled and understated, emotion.

His performance is really powerful in that regard. Amanda Ryan’s Joy moves from the somewhat brash American to the increasingly sensitive and insightful wife whose suffering brings out the best traits in human nature.

Around these two we have an extremely strong team. Denis Lill plays Warnie, Jack’s brother. At times he is engagingly bewildered and confused by what is happening to his brother, but unselfishly he accommodates, adapts and supports the couple in their journey to marriage, and through pain and loss. His performance is beautifully controlled.

Simon Shackleton is Professor Christopher Riley. His rather brash cynical part provides a good foil to Jack in particular.

The team is very experienced and directed very well by Alastair Whatley. The design provided an excellent, flexible set that was reminiscent of the old Oxford colleges; all aspects of the show were sensitive and delightful, including the costume details of that era.

Other themes treated in this play include the nature of friendship and the way art functions and reflects or becomes reality. The attitudes to women betrayed by the chauvinistic dons are exposed and are moderated by the relationship between Jack and Joy.

This is an intellectually satisfying play, beautifully written: it balances the more serious and moving narrative of Joy’s illness and death, and Jack’s powerlessness to relieve her pain and his own later grief, with some very witty dialogue and amusing moments. It has a profundity that will delight the more reflective and mature audience. To 16-04-16

Tim Crow

11-04-16 

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