Some classic books hold a special place in our hearts and the inaugural Narnia tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is so enduring that its next chapter had to be a magical stage adventure.
The thrilling stage adaptation that the director Sally Cookson opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, late in 2017, ended up at London’s Bridge Theatre for a pre-pandemic sell-out season.
It’s now back with a bewitching smash hit UK tour that opened in Leicester earlier this month and moves to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre tomorrow night.
Such is the enduring power of CS Lewis’s far-reaching narrative that his tale of entry into the magical world of Narnia has been frequently adapted.
This new version, which is touring with the director Michael Fentiman at the helm, features the four Pevensie children, Chris Jared as Aslan, and Sam Womack’s White Witch – not forgetting Schrodinger, the cat.
From the start, the director understood the challenge he was undertaking: “In 200 years time, [Lewis’s book] will be like one of our Mystery Plays. It comes with a sort of magic bound up with the soul of Britishness.
“The reason why it’s a classic is that it has a sort of palpable mythic-ness that pulls from something older that we can understand subconsciously. It’s an enduring classic because its magic in a way is contained in us.”
Samantha Womack speaks of the ongoing delight she takes in travelling with a show from venue to venue.
“I’ve spent my whole life being quite nomadic,” says Womack, whose TV renown has nonetheless allowed frequent return visits to the theatre in such shows as Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, and The Addams Family.
“I grew up on the QEII [cruise liner] and if I’m in one place too long I start to feel quite claustrophobic. I love the sense of my nest being my dressing room and having just one bag, one toothbrush, one outfit and each space becoming a different challenge: I love that and get bored otherwise, I think.”
More daunting is the weight of expectation attendant upon incarnating a familiar literary figure as Narnia’s evil White Witch.
“Those expectations come not just from the audience but everyone will have their own idea of how the character should look and move,” says Womack, “and I always find that absolutely terrifying because they sometimes work against one another.
“I have to hold fire with something and take my time, which can be hard when you’re not the most patient of people. I try hard not to allow those perceptions to knock my confidence, and it can be a tricky tightrope.”
With this part, Womack speaks as someone newly discovering a character of legend, this time from the inside out.
“My feeling about the queen is that she’s operating from a place of terror and fear: she’s got this need to perpetuate winter and by doing that, she is coloured with a neurosis and anxiety and unpredictability that I had never understood in her from the outside.”
Toby Olié began as a performing puppeteer who did five years in War Horse – “I moved from the back legs of Joey to the head,” he laughs.
He then decided he was happier offstage creating new material for generations of talent to come. “I’d always wanted to make my own work and felt with War Horse as if my performing bug had been fulfilled.”
Shaka Kalokoh, who plays Edmund Pevensie said: “It’s incredible to be part of a story that’s so recognisable.”
The 26-year-old graduate of London’s Guildhall remembers having the story read to him as a child growing up in southeast London.
He and his Pevensie castmates – Ammar Duffus as Peter, Robyn Sinclair as Susan and Karise Yensen as Lucy – have had to imagine themselves back in the world of wartime Britain in the 1940s that the novel inhabits and that renders the children evacuees ripe to tumble through the wardrobe into Narnia.
“I think at times we all feel displaced, whether we’re starting school or moving to a new area or, in this case, to do with the Second World War.
“You get the relationship between the siblings and how they navigate moving out of a war-torn city and how their relationships develop and the bonds they make – the lessons they learn.”
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe opens at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre tomorrow night (Nov 16) and runs until Saturday (Nov 20) before touring to: