A much loved classic has ventured into London as the new stage adaptation of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe makes its eagerly anticipated West End debut following a critically acclaimed UK tour.
The most famous part of C.S. Lewis’ classic The Chronicles of Narnia series, there have been countless adaptations across TV, film and theatre since the book was first published in 1950. This incarnation first premiered at Leeds Playhouse in 2017 before moving to London’s Bridge Theatre in 2019. It looked like the UK tour would have been the last time we visited Narnia for a while but the relatively sudden news the Gillian Lynne Theatre would be vacant allowed West End audiences to see it for themselves. The question is could this ever live up to the magic of the book?
Beginning in Wartime Britain, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe sees the four Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter) evacuated from London to live with a Professor in a large house in the countryside. There they discover a wardrobe which leads to the magical world of Narnia which is enduring an endless winter (Not Elsas fault this time) thanks to the White Witch. Hearing of a prophecy involving them, they attempt to restore Narnia to its former glory. Oh, and there’s a lion too. But we all knew that already, didn’t we?
The question is how do you recreate such a vast and descriptive world effectively on stage without it seeming underwhelming? Turns out pretty damn well. The set design from Tom Paris is glorious, surrounding the stage with huge circles with a gorgeous centrepiece revealing characters throughout the show. One of the most atmospheric shows I have ever been to, with a truly remarkable use of sound design by Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker for Autograph, creating ominous background music that sets the mood in a way that feels cinematic in scope. This is paired with beautiful lighting design from Jack Knowles, including inspired staging when the stage is plunged into darkness to reveal clever effects.
The visual elements are what make this production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe so incredibly special. With illusions and magic from Chris Fisher, moments genuinely had me wondering how they were happening, with brilliant tricks involving characters disappearing seemingly in front of your eyes. All carried out with great direction from Michael Fentman and choreography from Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus, scenes are constantly exciting to watch play out.
Puppetry design from Max Humphries is equally impressive – the highlight of which is the looming presence of Aslan, uniquely portrayed by a human actor as well as a beautiful puppet. A special mention has to go to the staging involved in creating the giant Turkish Delight man (I didn’t dream it, I promise) which was satisfyingly genius.
The man responsible for playing the lion Aslan (or the part representing his soul) is Chris Jared. Commanding and charismatic, he has the kind of stage presence demanding all eyes are on him whenever he was visible, fitting for the character he is playing. As the witch, Samantha Womack is fantastic. It would be very easy to descend into panto with the portrayal of it but she keeps the tone perfectly balanced – understated at times but always with a sense of sinister which would have terrified me had I been a kid (Ok, she still terrified me a bit). I also have to mention her sensational act one closing set piece which evoked memories of another witch in the West End as she essentially defied gravity.
The four Pevensie children are played by Shaka Kalokoh (Edmund), Delainey Hayles (Lucy), Robyn Sinclair (Susan) and Ammar Duffus (Peter). Four fantastic young actors who capture the imagination needed for Narnia perfectly, and play off against eachother and all the other weird and wild characters they run into brilliantly.
Other standouts among the truly sensational cast include Johnson Willis in a variety of characters including Professor Kirk and a truly standout moment as Father Christmas (Which was surreal to watch on a warm July evening). Julian Hoult and Christina Tedders are wonderful as Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Jez Unwin makes the most of limited stage time in a memorable turn as Mr Tumnus.
The use of actor-musos in this production are a perhaps unusual choice. It is always appreciated to see actors showing off another skill such as playing their own instrument, but it has to be said it doesn't add anything to this production in the same way it did in a show such as Amelie (which also featured several of the cast members here) and did feel slightly jarring at times. This isn't a musical though, and the smattering of songs that appear throughout are nice in themselves even if they are not the most memorable overall.
Earlier this week, I reviewed a similar show where I commented the tone felt disjointed. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is an example of how to get this tone right. Still child-friendly, this is a show that can appeal to all ages with plenty to keep adults entertained (Lines about Beavers and nuts entertained my filthy mind) but ensuring there is plenty to keep everybody captivated at all times.
This production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is inventive in its approach and a fitting addition to the legacy of such a classic. Absolutely stunning to watch visually with some clever twists, there is plenty to enjoy throughout. Perhaps there is a slight pacing problem in the first act, but this is more than made up with a packed and consistently exhilarating second act. Providing theatre escapism at its finest, this really is a feast for the senses.
My advice would be to go through the wardrobe (or you could always take the tube – however you travel usually) to visit this wonderful adaptation while you can. It’s only in the West End for 6 months, after that you’ll find you won’t be able to go back… immediately at least.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe plays the Gillian Lynne Theatre until January 8th 2023. Tickets available here.
Photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg