It’s not often that the stuffy world of academia throws up a compelling love story that will, in equal measures, enthrall and make you stifle a quiet sob.
But William Nicholson’s marvellous 1989 play, Shadowlands, adapted from his earlier hit TV film, is a highbrow weepie, set in the wood-panelled halls of Oxford, that will have you reaching for the tissues.
Birdsong Productions’ beautifully acted revival is now touring the UK. It opened last week at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and the biographical drama has lost none of its class.
Shadowlands is based on the true story of writer CS Lewis’s unconventional relationship with the outspoken American poet Joy Gresham. The pair, who initially played the roles of ageing novelist and much younger, ardent fan, went on to marry, but happiness was cruelly snatched away from the couple.
Nicholson’s major problem when writing Shadowlands was that his subjects were both intensely private people who kept much of their relationship out of the public eye, despite CS Lewis being one of England’s most recognisable authors for his Narnia series of children’s books.
With not much to go on a lot of Shadowlands is fiction, wrapped in an element of fact, but this moving love story will, nonetheless, tug at the heartstrings.
It opens with CS Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, giving a lecture – to us – on love, pain and suffering. It’s a theme he returns to throughout the play as he endures all three.
Stephen Boxer’s intelligent and authoritative portrayal of Clive Staples Lewis gives us a man whose deep faith was severely tested.
It’s an understated performance which adds conviction to a complicated man who seemingly knew all about the fairer sex yet had no real life experience of them. A highly educated academic whose unshakeable belief in an afterlife gave him the courage to cope with his wife’s fight against cancer.
Lewis has been described as a British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist but his friends would never have added the label “romantic” to that list.
A confirmed bachelor, he lived for more than 20 years with his brother, Warnie and inhabited a male-only, cloistered, world of animated conversations, drinking, and cups of cocoa. The two men ambled along in life, easy in each other’s company.
In Shadowlands we see that literary fame brings CS Lewis fan mail and none was more frequent than the letters he received from American Joy Gresham. One day she announces that she will be arriving in Oxford for a visit and would like to meet the author.
Tea and cakes leads to friendship. Lewis, 54, who describes himself as “comfortably situated middle-aged bachelor”, is quiet, bookish, totally unsure of himself with a woman, and she is a 37-year-old mother, loud, garrulous, “Jewish, Communist, Christian, American,” married to a philandering, alcoholic failed writer. If opposites attract then this was a (very chaste) affair made in heaven.
The pair secretly marry, on a technicality, so that Joy and her son Douglas can stay in the UK but, just when the new bride seems to be getting somewhere with her very timid suitor, she is struck down with bone cancer.
Amanda Ryan’s bold, courageous Joy lightens the seriousness of the drama with a nicely judged line in Jewish humour and the poet’s ballsy New York attitude. It’s a stark contrast, and quite a shock, for the fellows of Magdalen College Oxford, who don’t quite know what to make of the “simply ghastly” woman.
The ever reliable Denis Lill, who stepped in at the 11th-hour to replace Tony Slattery, provides superb support as Warnie, an endearing old buffer who enjoys a tipple or three. The domestic scenes with brother, Jack, are beautifully played with a real warmth.
I was baffled at the casting of a woman to play young Douglas Gresham but Shannon Rewcroft gives a convincing performance.
Director Alastair Whatley delivers a splendid, poignant, love story that finds laughter in tragedy and light in the darkest its moments. Don’t forget the tissues.
2016 Tour Dates
February 29 – March 5, Salisbury Playhouse March 7 – 12, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne March 14 – 19, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich March 29 – April 2, Theatre Royal, Windsor April 4-9, Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon April 11-16, Festival Theatre, Malvern April 19 – 23, Connaught Theatre, Worthing April 26-30, CAST Theatre, Doncaster May 16 – 21, Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield May 31-June 4, Birmingham Repertory Theatre June 13-18, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth June 21-25, New Theatre, Cardiff June 28-July 2, Northcott Theatre, Exeter July 25-30, Richmond Theatre.
Birdsong Productions’ revival of William Nicholson’s biographical drama, Shadowlands, is a poignant love story that finds laughter in tragedy. Don’t forget the tissues.