Joseph Pitcher, Amy Brown, Neil Salvage, Michael Taibi, Moyo Omoniyi, Owen Young, Louis Decosta Brown
The West Yorkshire Playhouse have received strong praise for their interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe over the last few years and after migrating south to the Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre it is clear that the high budget production travels well.
With the emergence of Erica Whyman’s Hansel and Gretel for the Northern Stage Company this month, folk tales appear be a perfect outlet for those looking for a break from the stale Pantomime format.
Here director Ian Brown’s version of the Christian allegory is transformed into a seasonal classic as the Rep’s stage becomes the otherworldly land of Narnia where it is always winter, but never Christmas.
The story surrounds four children from London forced to evacuate to the country, away from their mother during the World War Two Blitz. Whist staying at the eccentric Professor Kirk’s manor they fill their days with games and adventures until Lucy, the youngest, stumbles upon the fabled Wardrobe that takes her through the looking glass of imagination. When her siblings Peter, Susan and Edmund find themselves in the same land the “Children of Adam” meet an array of colourful characters who explain how they are ruled by the oppressive White Witch and can only be saved by the mighty lion, Aslan.
Betrayal, death and war are some of the weighty themes of Lewis’ children’s classic and though thematically limited, Brown presents a stunning world that delights all ages. Somersaulting wolves, sword wielding ogres and stilt walking giants rule the stage in battle scenes and as a spectacle it is certainly a crowd pleaser. There are some excellent ideas here, particularly with the wardrobe itself that when used by the children prompts giant fur coats and snow to appear from above the stage as a Narnia backdrop. Stage changes are seamless with a rotating set that brings forward the White Witch’s icy marble staircase whenever required and a host of colourful animal characters appearing briefly to change the set. For such a well known fantasy it is important to meet the audience’s high expectations and the world of Narnia is faithfully recreated from the iconic lamppost to Mr Tumnus’ forest cottage.
Songs have been added to the story for variety, though some are certainly more effective than others. The scene of Edmund’s temptation for instance includes a song about his beloved Turkish Delight which makes little sense lyrically and adds nothing to the progression of the story. Though they are presumably aimed at the younger audience members they do feel shoehorned into scenes and take time away from any real character progression or discussion of some of the texts issues.
Michael Taibi is impressive as the gentile Mr Tumnus and his stage time with Amy Brown’s Lucy is too short lived. Despite his impressive look and amplified voice Louis Decosta Johnson’s Aslan never manages to achieve the grandeur of the iconic lion, though appearing amongst the crowd during his resurrection scene gained some shocked expressions.
The decision to cast young actors instead of children was important as all four leads cope with two hours of stage time well and give a saccharine sweet depiction of what childhood was like pre-ASBOs that has great charm. Moyo Omoniyi does her best Grace Jones impersonation as the White Witch, but the campness she adds is in keeping with the style of the production and gained her a round of well deserved boos and hisses in true ‘he’s behind you’ style.
Overall those looking for a lavish alternative to the usual Yule time shows will find much to enjoy here, as will those hoping to keep the little ones spellbound for a couple of hours. Lovers of the books or the classic BBC version may be left wanting however, as this production doesn’t quite sink its teeth into the text.