Chichester Festival Theatre – 25 May 2019
Jack is a middle-aged Oxford English don of the ’50s , a bachelor and apologist for Christianity. Graceful, witty books and lectures justify such theological puzzles as “the problem of pain”. Within him, carefully protected by theology and cautious habit, is still a desolate eight-year-old grieving his mother: retreats into childlike imagination have fuelled the children’s books which have made him famous round the world, and (naturally) regarded with a slight envious suspicion in the senior Common Room.
He corresponds across the Atlantic, with a mouthy, witty American woman with a bad marriage who admires his religious writing and children’s books alike. She visits. His friends in the Common Room are pretty appalled, but the friendship deepens enough for them to go through a civil marriage so she can legally live here. Her cancer diagnosis makes him see that they are in love; real marriage and remission give Jack and Joy three years of great happiness before he meets the great unanswerable pain.
Jack of course is C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books; William Nicholson’s play a modern classic. I had seen it several times, most recently Alistair Whatley’s marvellous touring production with Stephen Boxer. Frankly, I had qualms about Hugh Bonneville in the role: too handsome, too familiar in his evocations of dullish decent steadiness in both Downton and his hapless W1A role.
But before many minutes in the chaffing Common Room scenes which open the play, I could see the point. It’s a different Lewis, but a valid one. Bonneville points up Lewis’ essential goodwill, contrasted with the nicely viperish Christopher Riley (Timothy Watson). It also brings out the touching tolerant sweetness of his relationship with his bufferish alcoholic brother Warnie: no intellectual and initially more than wary of Liz White’s noisy, assertive Joy, but possessed of more emotional commonsense than his brother. Andrew Havill is a joy, both in his alarmed early evasions and the grandfatherish warmth he shows in the crisis, towards the interloper’s young son (the night I saw it, a fine Ruari Finnegan).
All the jokes and little British uneasinesses are there , pointed and sharp and elegant under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction. I wondered at first if the vast stage would drown the play’s intimacy, but filmically fast-changing scenes on the revolve work brilliantly while in street scenes characters walk past a lamp-post (nice touch, we readers remember both its origins in The Magician’s Nephew and its appearance beyond the Wardrobe). Joy’s hospital bed stands in the second half as a small, pathetic focus in the centre while the irrelevances of the outside world circling distant around it: there’s emotional truth in that . The yawning black gap between two vast library shelves has its symbolism too, in Lewis’ heart, but also enables the child’s glimpses of Narnian divinity. The moment in the hotel when the boy rings the bell and a woman rises is magic.
One companion worried that Bonneville’s natural, possibly incurable, suavity would damage belief in his newfound ardour and the immense wrecking shock of his bereavement, as he has to accept that giving your whole heart means having it broken: ‘that’s the deal’. I didn’t find any problem with the Bonneville version: he did it his way. There is one gloriously telling moment when he and Joy are not just intellectual friends but physically married, and he lauds the ordinary, domestic happiness of it. For the only time in the play we see Lewis not at a desk or lecturing or poised in company, but lounging: feet up on a stool, relaxed, contented. A man made new. Strangely, that was the moment a tear pricked.
box office cft.org.uk to 25 may