The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Feb 9 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Visually arresting

King’s Theatre: Tues 8 – Sat 12 Feb 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

The touring production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the King’s is a real spectacle, reproducing the source material faithfully and showing considerable invention.

C. S. Lewis’s story of evacuees Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, and the magical land of Narnia they reach through a wardrobe, has been popular since its publication in 1950 and has spawned many adaptations. This is in spite of (or perhaps because of) its resolutely old-fashioned air, and its uneasy mix of whimsy and violence, Christian allegory and mysticism, talking animals and a murderous sorceress.

Robyn Sinclair (Susan) Karise Yansen (Lucy) Ammar Duffus (Peter) Johnson Willis (Professor Kirk) and Shaka Kalokoh (Edmund). Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

This version (a Leeds Playhouse production with Elliott & Harper Productions and Catherine Schreiber) is never less than well crafted and often visually stunning. The land of Narnia, where the evil White Witch ensures it is always winter but never Christmas, is represented convincingly in an adaptation that shows remarkable fidelity to the source without seeming hurried or over-stuffed.

The cast (21 strong, yet still doubling diligently) all discharge the various roles with skill and enthusiasm. The Pevensie siblings are played by Ammar Duffus, Robyn Sinclair, Shaka Kalokoh and Karise Yanson, and the pitfalls involved in having adults play children are avoided here. They come across as suitably naive and fresh-faced without being either irritatingly cloying or overly bumptious, with Sinclair and Yanson particularly strong.

noteworthy performances

There are other noteworthy performances – Johnson Willis’s Professor Kirke epitomises the mixture of drama and comedy that is largely successful throughout.

Shaka Kalokoh (Edmund) and Samantha Womack (White Witch). Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Not everything works so well. Samantha Womack is undoubtedly the biggest name here, partly for her time in EastEnders, and the pre-publicity has centred on her role as the White Witch. Womack has done more than enough before (not least in her other cameo role here) to show that her oddly flat performance must be a directorial choice. Perhaps it is intended to avoid frightening the many younger members of the audience, but the characterisation is dangerously underpowered.

Although described as being for ages 6 and up, there are certainly moments that might disturb anyone at the very bottom end of this scale. This is without mentioning the possible bemusement caused by the heavy-handed religious parallels – although admittedly there is nothing to compare on the wigginess scale with what happens at the end of the Narnia books.

a little like overkill

The Jesus-substitute character of the lion Aslan is represented here simultaneously by a performer, the suitably regal Chris Jared, and by a puppet. This does seem a little like overkill, although admittedly the puppetry (directed by Toby Olié and designed by Max Humphries) is first-rate throughout.

Ammar Duffus (Peter) and Chris Jared (Aslan). Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The staging is undoubtedly the best thing about this production. The design (by Tom Paris, original design by Rae Smith) is inventive and striking. Michael Fentiman’s direction (once again, based on Sally Cookson’s original production) is constantly surprising and gorgeously kinetic. There is arresting aerial work directed by Gwen Hales, and the results of movement consultant Dan Canham and choreographer Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus’s efforts are particularly strong.

That excellent choreography goes a long way towards disguising the fact that Benji Bower and Barnaby Race’s musical numbers are oddly spaced out and frankly less than necessary, always hinting that this is a production that would sit better at Christmas. This is reinforced by the arrival of Santa – something that does happen in the original book but whose prominence here is a trifle misplaced in February.

pin-sharp choreography

There are other occasions when the music seems odd. The pianist producing versions of period tunes was surely intended as a diversion while the audience take their seats. When the production is as delayed in starting as it was on the first night, to have it occurring twenty minutes after the advertised start time (with the house lights still up and many of the audience visibly fractious) gives this musical turn an added weight it simply cannot withstand.

The Lion, the Witch& Wardrobe Company. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

To then begin with a soldier singing We’ll Meet Again seems unbearably hackneyed. Luckily, the train passengers’ suitcases light up to represent the carriages, the pin-sharp choreography kicks in, and we are off.

If the Narnia books are too peculiar for you, this will not win you round. If, however, you grew up with them, or are reading them now, and love them despite their obvious faults, this will do very well. Not least because it is thoroughly impressive in its theatricality.

Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 8 – Saturday 12 February 2022
Evenings at 7pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 1pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Glasgow Theatre Royal, 282 Hope Street, Glasgow G2 3QA
Tue 1 – Sat 5 March 2022
Evenings: 7.30, Weds, Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: . Book here.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe company. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on tour 2022:
8 – 12 February Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
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15 – 19 February Canterbury
Marlowe Theatre
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22 – 26 February Plymouth
Theatre Royal
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1 – 5 March Glasgow
Theatre Royal
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8 – 12 March Birmingham
Alexandra Theatre
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15 – 19 March Dublin
Bord Gais Energy Theatre
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22 – 26 March Woking
New Victoria Theatre
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5 – 9 April Norwich
Theatre Royal
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12 – 16 April Wimbledon
New Wimbledon Theatre
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3 – 7 May Bristol
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