The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Part of the magic of Christmas is about the telling of stories, from Scrooge and ‘It’s a wonderful life’ to ‘the Snowman’ and ‘Call the Midwife’ Christmas special- stories told in the warm by the fire whilst outside the dark winter night rages. And in a world where those stories, at least for children, seemed to be fired out in ever increasingly short, frenetic bursts of CGI wizardry and the imagination is allowed to curl up and be spoon fed, Sally Cookson’s production of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse provides a refreshing, engaging change- and not just to this jaded critic but judging by their rapturous attention to all the young (and old) audience packing out the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre.
Cookson’s magical production – more on that word later- leads us by the hand into a world of story and image, the story being C.S Lewis’s deftly drawn tale of the land of Narnia and its good and bad magic, the imagery connecting directly to that place in all our collective childhood psyches where worlds are created from boxes and chairs and bed sheets. As an audience we’re taken into those realms from the show’s opening moments by heckling 1940’s officials who check our evacuation labels and welcome us aboard a fantastical train of suitcase carriages and toy engine which winds its way over and round hills, perfectly establishing the convention where a Narnian landscape of blizzards, trees and snow banks is conjured up by sheets, paper and tightly choreographed actors- a convention that leaves even the most intricate of CGI standing. We’re introduced to a whole array of beings- badgers and foxes and beavers in cardigans and tank tops, who are cruelly transformed into white shrouded stone statues; then there’s a pagan style Father Christmas complete with reindeer- plus a whole army of leering, massively-shadowed demons.
Audience engagement is never forgotten in all of this spectacle; participation is required at various points in the show- particularly notable is a sequence when the afore mentioned green evacuation labels are waved as new foliage, signalling a spring that marks the evil ruler of Narnia’s ultimate doom.
Of course all these magical set pieces would be hollow without the underpinning of a uniformly strong ensemble of actors, who create, choreograph and populate this world. Notable are Patricia Allison, Cora Kirk, Michael Jean-Marain and John Leader as the four children who manage to set the tone of childhood with a pitch perfect mix of wonder and awkward energy showing not a single hint of cuteness. Carla Mendonca is a commanding White Witch who provides a fitting match for Iain Johnstone’s Aslan- but both performances are almost overshadowed by the glorious enormous puppet that towers over him, part lion, part pagan flower grove. Cookson, along with Adam Peck ensure that their adaptation of the narrative of Lewis’s book is never swamped by spectacle; the story neatly leaps over and round jumps in the original text, keeping the tone brisk and engaging; a live band provides further subtle and haunting energy to this story.
A lot is sung, shouted and twerked about the magic of Christmas but surely at heart magic is to be found when the ordinary and everyday becomes suddenly transformed into something different, beautiful and strange- a trick this production achieves effectively and consistently. In the programme notes Sally Cookson talks about her own sense of wonder on first encountering Lewis’s world of Narnia, in this production she has allowed that wonder to be shared by many more.