BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER
The Bridge Theatre’s magical new production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a highlight of this Christmas season.
A bold interpretation, with mainly black leads, director Sally Cookson takes this traditional tale and gives it a very contemporary twist – Mr Beaver serves the children a vegan hot pot. But the original magic is preserved, indeed the creative team take it to new heights with a stunning staging.
C.S. Lewis was inspired to begin writing his Chronicles of Narnia when he hosted child evacuees during the War. He was horrified by how little they had read, but then realized how little there was for children to read.
The original story concerns the four Pevensie children, (Lucy, Susan Peter and Edmund), who are all evacuated to a large house in the English countryside owned by a batty old Professor.
For some reason Director Sally Cookson makes the house in Scotland (which is historically
inaccurate and quite unnecessary), but stick with it.
As you enter the auditorium you are handed your green evacuation label – a copy of the one given to thousands of London schoolchildren as they were sent to the safety of the country away from German bombs.
The four children are all played by adults, which is a shame as there are so many uber-talented child actors around and just not enough roles. Still, their costumes are cleverly pimped to make them seem younger and Keziah Joseph as Lucy is very convincing.
She finds a wardrobe in the spare room, and pressing through the fur coats finds herself transported to the magical world of Narnia.
It is always winter there, but never Christmas, thanks to the wicked White Witch.
Her brother Edmund, and his willingness to betray his siblings, is central to this story so I am glad we are treated to John Leader in this role.
John was the highlight of the Henry plays at The Globe this summer. Shalisha James-Davis is also very good as Susan, while Peter is portrayed by Femi Akinfolarin.
As the four children go through the wardrobe and discover Narnia, they encounter different talking animals charmingly rendered by the outstanding ensemble.
There is also a very fetching cameo by Tim Stalling as Father Christmas.
However, the show is inevitably stolen by the Witch (a brilliant Laura Elphinstone loving every minute of it).
She wields her wand with abandon, turning any cheeky animal into stone at the drop of a hat, while her ferocious dog Maugrim (the muscly Omari Bernard) has to be restrained from eating the small children in the front row. They squeal with delight.
The White Witch of course meets her nemesis in Aslan. Author C.S. Lewis wrote these Narnia books to make the New Testament more accessible to children.
Aslan was his way of explaining Jesus and his sacrifice. Wil Johnson is more comfortable in this part than when (over) playing the professor.
Here, Aslan is portrayed as an enormous puppet lion nearly a 100 ft long with Johnson underneath in a huge fur (Johanna Coe’s costumes and (fake) furs are gorgeous).
Indeed perhaps the best thing about this show is the impressive staging by Rae Smith (responsible for those War Horse puppets).
Smith has claims to be 2019’s top designer – Translations, Rosmersholm, now this. The Witch’s entrance is appropriately dramatic, while her almost narcotic hold over Edmund with Turkish Delight is captured in a wonderfully surreal scene.
The snowy landscape is achieved by four ghost-like figures who appear with vast white trains which envelop the stage. As spring comes in the finale, the theatre is flooded with flowers.
A truly magical production for children of all ages.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is at Bridge Theatre until February 2.
Call the box office on 0333 320 0051.