Bridge Theatre, London – until 2 February 2020
How to interpret an old favourite? A Christian fantasy allegory, the world of Narnia, the first of C.S.Lewis’ immortal children’s books created in wartime Oxford because evacuee children seemed to lack the fierce imagination on which he – orphaned young – had lived. We nearly all have our own defensive idea about Aslan’s kingdom and its message of martial courage and redemption through a sacrifice by the innocent leader.
So give it to the inventive director Sally Cookson, in this revamped production of her Leeds production; let Rae Smith loose on design, use the fantasy of bare-stage and musicians and some nifty trapdoor work, and trust a hardworking ensemble. For they must become the set or deck it at lightning speed: fast-moving as monsters, fur coats, horrors, animals, plants or (very frequently, and wildly) galloping snowdrifts of blowing white silken cloth on which, astonishingly, nobody slipped.
She sets it firmly in its wartime context, with the evacuee train, bossy matrons, Tommies in gas masks, and the audience issued with green evac cards to flutter as leaves when spring comes. It is also firmly in the context of children in trauma, puzzlement and separation from parents, and with battle and danger in their minds.
The Pevensies on the classic cover are of course pink-faced middle class 1940s White British. Not so this cast: siblings of a modern London. They are Femi Akinfolarin (Peter), Shalisha James Davis (Susan) and Keziah Joseph as a sweet valiant Lucie, and a very good John Leader as the treacherous, resentful, suffering, then repentant Edmund. It is more than a colour-blind or correctly-inclusive trope though. Think about it: in modern Britain the children most likely to have been separated and terrified by war are Eritrean, Nigerian, Middle Eastern… it felt fitting.
And they’re very good. Programme notes assure us that they were all encouraged to improvise a bit with a writer-in-the-room to help erase any old prep school cries like “Pax!” or “Jolly good!”, but in the event they are in no way tiresomely street or sassy.
And it is all rather fabulous. Great costumes, some subtly referencing the war – the Badgers in khaki, Biggles helmets and snowshoe tails; Aslan, brilliantly, is both the huge puppet lion and the human dignified figure of Wil Johnson (very theologically correct, actually, an incarnation of deity). The final battle is tremendous: gaping skeletal ragged horrors of improbable ghostly height, the Witch (Laura Elphinstone frostily, scornfully, viciously majestic riding on a great icicle). There’s aerialism. The spring conjures up green shoots, and crowdsurfing gigantic felt petals. Maugrim the secret-police wolf is horrible in his savage mask, despite the distraction of Omari Bernard’s enviable sixpack. Tumnus is a hoot: Stuart Neal born to play a worried faun.
Everything is both spectacular and – important, this, for children – it also feels like something you could play at home with tablecloths and cardboard. If you can’t borrow any children to take, haul your own inner-child along. You won’t regret it. Happy Christmas.
box office bridgetheatre.co.uk
to 2 Feb
AND A STAGE-MANAGEMENT MOUSE (if there was an ensemble-mouse I’d put it up, but clearly they’ll have needed managing!)