THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
The Bridge Theatre
The 2017 production which stunned audiences at the Leeds Playhouse comes to London. Get tickets for the last two weeks!
Run: Until 2nd February
Book by: C.S Lewis
Writer in the room: Adam Peck
Director: Sally Cookson
Designer: Rae Smith
Composer: Benji Bower
Movement Director: Dan Canham
Puppetry: Craig Leo
You know the story: Four siblings, a magical land, a portal, a lamp post and a faun called Tumnus. It’s a classic. Although, no easy feat to stage. Does this ambitious production deliver?
The short answer is: yes! Sally Cookson creates the world of Narnia, in all its glory, right before our eyes. There must have been a substantial budget, but it actually isn’t too high tech, rather a huge number of beautifully made props and costumes and some expert choreography. The ensemble pull the whole thing together with slick dances and swift scene changes (an army of stage managers no doubt). The dancers didn’t hide away, but were in the forefront so that even the candlesticks had personalities. There were hundreds of costume changes for the ensemble with some of the most elaborate costumes I’ve ever encountered. This made it seem that there were countless actors. During the applause I couldn’t believe that so few actors could have played all those parts.
There were also plenty of puppets and Craig Leo, the puppetry director, certainly deserves a shout out for the masterpiece that was Aslan. I can’t really describe the first entrance of this six-person puppet (firstly because I don’t want to ruin it and secondly because I actually can’t think of the words). All you need to know is that it definitely does the great King of Narnia justice. The White Witch was not so impressive. She spent far too much time out of the way on a prow-like podium and apart from having a terrifying headdress was not altogether as scary as she should have been. I think my main criticism would be the quality of the acting itself throughout the show. Although it doesn’t feel like money being thrown at it for no reason, this production falls slightly into the trap of having too much going on. It felt as though the actors were distracted by the logistics of the piece rather than on their characters, emotions, etc. However, this can be probably be forgiven. If I had to negotiate a rope swing over the audience in the second half, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about my scene objective either.
Not only did we have dancers and puppets, but also acrobats. One thing I learnt was that Edmund is both a traitor and trapeze artist. There was no talent unexplored here. To aid all of this was a live band in the corner who had their spotlight moment as Father Christmas’s elves (a little strange after Twelfth Night but not too overpowering). They were a small but feisty group of musicians providing an underscore for the entire show. It is not a musical, but there are three or four songs (written for this show) which I felt did not detract from the magic but did not really add anything special. The number which definitely could have been cut was Edmund’s peculiar ritual-like ‘I love Turkish delight’.
The whole thing is full of moments that you might hope for once in a good show – genius moments. One of these is the first entrance into Narnia. There were huge white sheets emanating from entrances I didn’t even know existed. The result was a mass of white encompassing every part of the theatre (even some audience members). Each sheet was attached to an ensemble member cloaked in white. The actors piled onto the stage, trailing their sheets behind them, each falling perfectly into place. I dread to think how many times they had to rehearse that or how many times it went wrong, but it appeared seamless. It gave me a tingling feeling, perhaps similar to the feeling one might have when finding a magic wardrobe. I would go again just for that moment. Beautiful.
There was one especially positive aspect that stood out for me: the well- judged audience participation. There is nothing worse than settling down in your seat, only to spend the whole experience head down, desperately avoiding eye contact with the ensemble member assigned to your section. Unacceptable (unless in a pantomime). However, an element of inclusion was necessary because of the decision to make it an end-on production. Initially, I thought the reason that Sally Cookson chose The Bridge Theatre was because the space is so versatile. It was a shame, then, for this show to be one of the first non-immersive Bridge productions. Having said that, audience participation was successful. The actors deployed us as a whole rather than singling out individuals – during the course of the evening I was a leaf, some snow, a Narnian soldier and possibly also an elf, but I’m not sure.
It is a thrilling piece and well-spaced over the two-and-a-bit hours. The ending feels somewhat rushed, but with children there it was better that it finished before 10pm. I have never seen anything bad at the Bridge and this production certainly doesn’t change that. It has some flaws, but everyone around me was having a brilliant time – adults and children alike. It was a ‘what you see is what you get’ show, and what you see is pretty magical.