Chichester Festival Theatre – until 25 May 2019
“If God loves us then why does to allow us to suffer?” asks the writer, CS Lewis, during one of his many lectures to students at Oxford. And it’s a phrase which tested his faith to the limit during his eight-year relationship with the only woman he ever loved, Joy Gresham.
A revival of Shadowlands, William Nicholson’s 1989 poignant, award-winning play about grief, love and faith, has just opened at Chichester Festival Theatre with Hugh Bonneville and Liz White playing the ill-fated couple, Jack Lewis and Joy.
Bonneville, no stranger to playing establishment figures, makes for a very unfusty Oxford don, the light timbre of his voice finding more than a little self-deprecating comedy in his cloistered life among the dreaming spires.
Lewis is largely known through his Chronicles of Narnia children’s books rather than his academic tomes. He led a scholarly life as English Fellow of Magdalen where he taught for nearly 30 years and, later, Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.
Jack has lived for most of his adult life with his young brother, Warnie, and spends his leisure time in the company of other male dons at a club he formed, The Inklings (a fellow member and friend being the author JRR Tolkien). His contact with the female of the species is almost non-existent.
But his popular children’s books has brought him fan mail from around the globe including regular correspondence from a very persistent Jewish, Communist, Christian, American poet called Joy Gresham. Suddenly Joy announces that she’s coming to England with her son, Douglas, and that she wants to meet the inhibited and restrained author.
Tea is arranged at The Churchill which goes rather well. Liz White’s talkative, outspoken Joy makes quite an impression on the repressed, conservative Jack. And there’s a lovely, surreal moment, re-imagined by director Rachel Kavanaugh, when the writer enchants young Douglas with a scene from one of his Narnia books.
Peter McKintosh’s spartan set of a single line of bookshelves, gives way to reveal a glacial forest with the Snow Queen watching the boy.
The relationship between Jack Lewis and Joy Gresham is halting and fiercely platonic. He is incapable of showing emotion or expressing his feelings while she is the opposite, wearing her heart on her sleeve and shooting straight from the hip.
Yet Jack agrees to marry Joy, purely on a technicality, so that she and Douglas can remain in the UK.
But when Joy is then diagnosed with cancer Lewis’s long-held Christian faith becomes perilously fragile.
White’s Joy is so full of life that her courageous struggle with death is heart-rending.
Lewis, a devout Christian once again, constantly reassures her that this life of pain and suffering is only a Shadowlands and that real life comes after it. It’s a thought that both cling to for comfort.
Shadowlands is a powerful and compelling love story, played with considerable restraint by its two stars. Indeed Bonneville’s undemonstrative Lewis is so emotionally barren that it’s quite disturbing when he finally cracks.
This isn’t an all-out weepie but there are a few who will find it hard to control their emotions. A well made and moving revival.
Shadowlands runs in the Festival Theatre until May 25.
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