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Amanda Ryan as Joy, Shannon Rewcroft as Douglas, Denis Lill as Warnie and Stephen Boxer as Lewis. Pictures: Jack Ladenburg

Shadowlands

Birmingham Rep

****

CLIVE Staples Lewis would seem an unlikely lover; a bookish expert on mediaeval literature, an Oxford don in his 50s, bachelor seeing no reason to change, and living with his retired major brother Warren, in a rambling house with broken central heating and an air of shabby genteel in Oxford.

Yet William Nicholson’s play is a love story, deep, intense and moving, with the academic, who was comfortable in his own world and awkward out of it, falling, slowly and painfully in love with an American divorcee who shook up his quiet, routine world of dreaming spires.

She was Joy Gresham, married and then divorced from an abusive, alcoholic American novelist William L Gresham. She was a published author herself and started writing to Lewis because of a common interest in theology.

A visit to Oxford to meet Lewis was to lead to a love affair which might have grown at the speed of a sluggish glacier but reached a depth that was painful to watch as cancer slowly took its deathly toll on her.

Stephen Boxer is superb as Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles and a friend and colleague of that other mediaeval scholar, J R R Tolkien.

Boxer has a lovely matter of fact manner about him, as long as the fact can be proved or justified of course; always a little distant, a hint of the absent minded professor without the drawback of being forgetful, with a congenital inability to see the glaringly obvious when to comes to affairs of the heart.

Lewis, incidentally, was universally called Jack for the simple reason he decided, at the age of four, that he did not like being called Clive.

Amanda Ryan is a delight as Joy, Lewis’s equal when it comes to intellectual sparring and with some of the best and funniest lines in the play, one in particular when she discovers she is dying which brought the house down, for this is not a morbid wallow in grief, it is a very human love story between an inward looking academic and an outward looking American woman.

All credit to Ryan as well for a strong, consistent accent, none of your generic mid Atlantic drawl here, there was no mistaking Mrs Gresham was from Westchester, New York.

And bumbling along in their wake is Warnie, Major Warren Lewis, a man of few words although words or not Denis Lill turns him into quite a character. We feel his resentment at this pushy American woman who has entered their lives, disturbing their comfortable, reassuring routine, but watch his ajoy and lewisffection grow for Joy and her young son Douglas, a fine performance from Shannon Rewcroft taking on the role of a boy, incidentally.

Around them are Lewis’s circle of intellectual friends such as the abrasive Prof Christopher Riley, played by Simon Shackleton, who meets his intellectual match in his sparring with Joy.

Joy and Jack in the shadow of Narnia

And The Rev Harry Harrington, played by Jeffrey Harmer . . . Lewis married Joy first in 1956, in what we would see these days as a marriage of convenience, a civil ceremony merely to allow her to stay in Britain. To him it was no more than names on paper and furthermore, as she had already been married, in the eyes of God she would always be married – until death us do part – so real marriage was impossible.

A year later with Joy’s probably terminal bone cancer diagnosed, Lewis had resolved his theological obstacle, or rather love had overcome it, and decided to be married properly, in the eyes of God.

But that created a dilemma for friend Harry, as the Church of England of that time frowned upon divorced people remarrying and Harry refused to consider marrying the couple – another friend the Rev Peter Bide, conducted the bedside ceremony.

A short remission gave the couple a few years together including a honeymoon in Greece before the cancer returned with its inevitable end.

The first act is a gentle comedy with a hint of romance, the second is an emotional journey.

Lewis was well known for his Christian beliefs and writings a regular on radio, and the play opens with him giving a lecture on love with pain and suffering an integral part of love.

The second act is a practical demonstration, the pain and suffering at Joy’s death being a merely a part of the happiness they had enjoyed in the final months.

Perhaps those final months are a little too measured, the pace, already gentle, slowing a tad but they are still moving moments as the pair reveal a love for each other so deep it becomes spiritual. The reasoned theories and theological arguments swept away by their feelings for each other.

None of the reasoned arguments in the world can lessen grief and there is a moving moment as Lewis, who lost his own mother, aged eight, breaks down as he and Douglas embrace each other for comfort.

Lewis ends his lecture on what is love as the play draws to a close, having answered his own question.

There is a good supporting cast of waiters, doctors, nurses and academics who all pitch in to ensure scene changes are swift and seamless.

Director Alastair Whatley has provided a light touch to bring out what is a very gentle, love story with a lovely set which serves as house, halls, restaurant and hospital from him and Anne-Marie Woodley. There is even a hint of Narnia from time to time through the window.

Full marks to for Alex Wardle for lighting which was no easy task as different parts of the stage were lit for different scenes and lighting used to create atmosphere. Particularly effective was the projected image of a stained window on the floor as if the sun was streaming through, to represent the hall of Lewis’s Oxford college.

And having had reservations about the acoustics of the Rep in the past what a pleasure to see a production where you could hear every word clear as a bell, a tribute to both Dominic Bilkey’s sound design and a group of beautifully spoken actors.

The result is a well written, well acted and well directed play which will make you laugh, make you sad, and, most of all, make you think. To 04-06-16

Roger Clarke

31-05-16 

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