There’s a place in everyone’s hearts for the magical The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis’s children’s fantasy novel that spawned a series and became one of the world’s most popular children’s books.
And I was delighted to hear that the spectacular Leeds Playhouse stage adaptation was coming my way, opening last night at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre.
The chance to revisit Narnia so (very) many years after being enthralled as a child -I still have all seven books in the series – was as tempting as.. well, a box of scrumptious Turkish delight.
As an eight-year-old, or there abouts, I was taken to another world, a parallel universe where animals talked, a wicked white witch ruled with impunity, and a fearsome lion rose from the dead to save the world from tyranny.
It was only in my adult years that Lewis’s alegoric themes of faith, Christianity, global religions and folklore, slotted into place.
Needless to say, anticipation was high and this touring production of the 2017 show doesn’t disappoint. It’s a triumph.
About 25 minutes has been shaved off the original running time to produce a compact two-hour production that doesn’t pause for breath for one second.
Actor-musicians (and what a talented bunch) are onstage throughout, playing a remarkable collection of instruments, dancing and moving through an inventive tableau of images.
The show opens with the company onstage singing We’ll Meet Again. It’s World War Two and the four Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – are being evacuated to the wilds of Scotland where they are to sit out the conflict in the home of an eccentric professor.
Lucy finds an old wardrobe, stuffed with fur coats, in a spare bedroom, and soon discovers that the imposing piece of furniture provides a portal to another land.
Before long she has persuaded her siblings to join her in Narnia, where her best friend is a faun called Mr Tumnus and an evil White Witch has plunged the world into 100 years of ice and snow.
While their parents fight on the Home Front against the evil of Hitler the four children must fulfil their destiny in saving a fantasy world from terror and oppression with a little help from a dancing Santa toting a very un-PC armoury of Christmas presents, and a divine lion called Aslan.
Okay, yes as an adult, some of the show’s themes are (now) glaringly obvious but I’m betting that the packed theatre of school parties and wide-eyed children with their parents, put Jesus, Judas et al on a back burner to, instead, thrill at the flying scenes, the fluorescent dancing Turkish Delight and the nightmarish skeletal ghouls.
At times director Michael Fentiman puts style before substance, throwing inventive scene changes, spellbinding special effects and sleight-of-hand at the show at the expense of story and characterisation.
But they are marvellous and work to transport theatre-goers into a magical world of fantasy and imagination.
The splendid “War Horse” style puppet performers bring to life both Schrodinger, the professor’s purrfectly adorable cat and Aslan’s majestic avatar.
And sweeping in to terrify everyone is Sam Womack’s chilling White Witch, her icy cackle and evil glare enough to freeze any restless child.
She’s terrifically good at being bad and it’s a shame she doesn’t have more scenes in the show.
Ditto Chris Jared who makes an imposing Aslan, a supernatural lion warrior king decked out in animal pelts and dreadlocks. His time on stage is all too brief and the rushed climax is robbed of power.
In retrospect I’d like to have seen those extra minutes reinstated to give the characters and story more depth and time to develop.
If there is any gripe it’s that the actors playing the four children – Ammar Duffus, Robyn Sinclair, Shaka Kalokoh and Karise Yensen – are too old to be convincing.
But if 82-year-old Ian McKellen can play the young prince, Hamlet, then perhaps age-blind casting is the new norm.
Visually inventive and spectacular, the magic of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still casts a spell in this modern age.