Theatre Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Date Posted: 06/06/2012

Can Kensington Gardens in summertime be transformed into the snow-white world of Narnia? Intrigued, Melissa Cadby pitched up to Threesixty’s tent to find out.

The show summed up in one sentence… A new bells-and-whistles production of the C.S Lewis classic fairy tale; expect puppetry, stilt-walking, gymnastics, aerial acrobatics and 360-degree projections.

Who should see it? Fans of the novel, both young and old, will undoubtedly enjoy this fantasy production in its fresh exciting surroundings. Ideal for a sense of escapism, those after a polished West End musical should perhaps look elsewhere.

On first hearing that the C.S Lewis classic fairy tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was to be adapted for the stage, I was immediately transported back to childhood - devouring all seven of the Chronicles of Narnia fantasy novels, swiftly followed by the BBC Young Classic film. I recall that the movie was only available on double VHS at the time – quite unheard of, but necessary as it clocked in at an epic 170 minutes.

Using my 12-year-old sister-in-law as the ideal excuse to nab the pair of tickets on offer, we headed to Kensington Gardens to find Threesixty’s temporary tent-style theatre standing boldly at 100-feet high in the shadows of Kensington Palace.

An impressive structure boasting almost 1,500 seats tiered around a central stage, the auditorium is designed for atmosphere, acoustics, and the ability to display 360-degree projections. It did create an intimate feel, with an audience mix of school groups, families and adult parties; however I was disappointed to see sad empty seats so soon after opening night.

Undeterred, the show got underway as we were introduced to our central characters, the Pevensie family – siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Evacuated to the country to reside with an eccentric professor at the outbreak of World War Two, the adaptation ploughs straight into a game of hide-and-seek, with plucky Lucy seeking concealment in the wardrobe.

Subsequently and within minutes from the start, we were teleported to the white-dusted magical world of Narnia through the use of snow machines, human props, and icy depictions projected onto the tent’s dome.

Adhering to the original storyline, the time-warped realm eventually beckons all four children through the mahogany doors and past the sea of fur coats, into a world of mystical animals and mythical creatures.

In a quest to rescue friendly faun Mr Tumnus from an eternity spent frozen in stone, churlish Edmund is lured to the dark side by the sinister White Witch. Putting his family and the future of the innocent Narnian’s in jeopardy, help must be sought by true ruler, Aslan the lion.

The script wasn’t quite a word-for-word translation from the fictional book, but I was surprised by just how many lines I could recall over 20 years later.

I must admit that I was a little surprised and initially disappointed to discover that the show had been revised to include songs. Though not quite a full-blown musical - a genre of which I am not generally a big fan - the score did succeed in winning me over by the end.

The music seemed to be a tool in which to establish drama and build atmosphere, particularly during the disturbing fight and ritual scenes, rather than to produce catchy, big band numbers.

In terms of casting, without doubt Lucy and Edmund, played by Rebecca Benson and Jonny Weldon respectively, led the foursome extremely well with a mixture of youthful naivety and outright gullibility.

Older siblings, sensible pair Peter (Philip Labey) and Susan (Carly Bawden), also made for convincing protective-parent figures.

Mr and Mrs Beaver were the cast’s comedic couple and evil dwarf Ginarbrikk delivered a few humorous one-liners, but stage veteran Sally Dexter’s portrayal of the tyrannical White Witch stole the show, matched only by puppet Aslan.

Three actors embraced the role of puppet Aslan, voiced by the atmospheric booms of David Suchet, as they worked in harmony to choreograph the head, heart and hind of the lion.

With a nod to the National Theatre’s War Horse, the creative team, including puppetry director Steve Tiplady, did such a good job that they took the character away from pantomime territory, and before long I could only see beyond the actors to the character itself.

This can also be said for the costumes, designed by Tom Scutt, which thankfully avoided any cartoon-like elements and instead were both edgy and dark-natured.    

The staging and set design was achieved with aplomb, combining puppetry, stilt-walking, gymnastics, aerial acrobatics, projections, a revolving stage, and even magic illusions, which entertained and intrigued audience members both young and old.

Perhaps a quote by C.S. Lewis himself succinctly sums up why I took such pleasure from this reminiscent production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is currently booking at the Kensington Gardens’ Threesixty Theatre until the 9th September. Performances from the 11th June until the 23rd July are scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings with three weekend matinees. From the 23rd July, performances will run on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Groups of ten plus can secure a 20 per cent discount on Monday to Friday shows.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

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