AS ADULTS made vast promises and engaged in shrill media battles across the political battleground, an invitation to become a child again and escape through the back of the wardrobe felt very welcome. This new production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Bridge Theatre was first seen in Leeds in 2017. The transfer to London maintains its joy and brings this sugar rush of a show to new audiences in a riot of colour and energy.
The fun begins as soon as you enter the theatre and are handed a green ticket, denoting evacuee status. Once inside the auditorium, actors in tin hats ask you to wave the tickets, because the train is soon to depart, and no one must be left behind. So, once settled and waiting for the off, there is a shout from the back. Wait! Some more children! Almost late! And so the Pevensie children run through, climb on to the stage, and we’re ready for the off.
I grew up with the C. S. Lewis books and loved them. In many ways, the Narnia chronicles are impossible to adapt. The sheer other-worldliness and childlike wonder take root in the imagination, so suspending belief — or disbelief — is the key. The director, Sally Cookson, has hit on “the heart of the story” as recounted in a programme note. “A traumatic event gets mentioned in the briefest of ways — ‘sent away from London because of the war’ — forcing them away from everything they love . . . having to survive in a world in which they have no power and no idea what is going to happen in the future.”
The four children, played by Femi Akinfolarin (Peter), Shalisha James-Davis (Susan), Keziah Joseph (Lucy), and John Leader (Edmund) — all Aran knits and pinafores — bring a wholly believable children’s-TV enthusiasm to the journey. Laura Elphinstone cuts a dour Mrs Macready, who meets them and unrecognisably reappears later as the ferocious White Witch. The same is true of Wil Johnson’s Professor Kirke, who zanily hosts them in his ramshackle home; he resurfaces in the second half as Aslan, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Brinkhoff moegenburgFather Christmas (Tim Dalling) and cast in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Perhaps as an antidote to so much computer generation, it is unapologetically old-fashioned and excessively theatrical, with a hit parade of stage tricks: Wicked, check; Matilda, check; War Horse, check. Rae Smith’s design is masterly, and there are a score of songs and soundtrack by Benji Bower. There is no fourth wall: the cast are in and out of the audience like ferrets. Balls bounce, a sheet is pulled over the stalls, and there’s snow. Mr Tumnus the faun (Stuart Neal) bursts into song and pirouettes a lamppost like Gene Kelly. And there is real humour to induce many laugh-out-loud moments.
The Narnian Resistance communicates through tin cans and string. The Beavers offer vegan hotpot (not in the book!). Father Christmas opens the second half like a ceilidh and benignly hands out weapons that could be toys but just might be needed. It is rip-roaring stuff, but jolly serious, too. The White Witch is scary, and Aslan brings strong authority. His sacrifice is a dark moment; then the puppet mice appear to gnaw through his net, and we’re back on track. Everyone goes home as friends.
I have never enjoyed pantomimes much, finding them too silly. Maybe C. S. Lewis is partly responsible, with his brilliant vision of a moral universe. It is unquestionably Christian, and we need more of this. It should be the law that all adults take a child to this show. That’s a policy I would vote for, and a lot more fun.
At the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SG, booking until 2 February. Box office: phone 0333 320 0051. bridgetheatre.co.uk