This captivating production takes the wartime framing of CS Lewis’s tale and bleeds it across the fantasia. It is still, in spirit, a children’s story but contains all the grit and gore of war and feels far darker than the 1950 novel.
Anxiety about the war swarms the lives of siblings Lucy (Delainey Hayles), Peter (Ammar Duffus), Edmund (Shaka Kalokoh) and Susan (Robyn Sinclair). A beautiful rendition of We’ll Meet Again opens the show to signpost the siblings’ evacuation from London to Inverness during the blitz, and underline their forced displacement to an alien world.
The war follows them into the wardrobe which is full of repeated battle cries – everyone from the White Witch and Aslan to Mrs Beaver and Santa Claus reminds us that “war is upon us” – and Peter, the eldest child, speaks of his father flying planes, beyond Narnia.
But there is the most riveting spectacle alongside this darkness. Michael Fentiman’s touring production fits this enormous West End stage like a glove. Tom Paris’s design is a wonder, with a giant clock face as a backdrop to mark the disparity between real-world time and Narnia’s parallel universe. The cut out circle at its centre visually builds on the idea of a portal to another world and is used to heighten the drama as figures appear in it in moments of extremis.
Samantha Womack’s White Witch is all hard edges and glaring looks yet resists becoming a pantomime villain. Her wolves, played by actors, are comic grotesques that scuttle disturbingly, with Maugrim (Emmanuel Ogunjinmi) a terrifying mix of robot and growling animal.
Aslan is a truly magnificent creation, represented both by an awesome puppet (manipulated by Oliver Grant, Sean Lopeman and Shaun McCourt, full of fluid leonine motions) and by an actor (Chris Jared) with a shaggy coat and mane of hair. This doubleness is ingenious and we believe in them both.
Max Humphries’s puppetry design and Toby Olié’s puppetry direction are perfection, not least the professor’s house cat, mischievously called Schrödinger. There is fabulous hybridity to the animals: some played by actors, others by puppets, and it feels deeply considered. The magic is a marvel too, full of breathtaking tricks thanks to the help of illusionist Chris Fisher, with characters disappearing into thin air.
The show is a development of a 2017 production directed by Sally Cookson and contains some of her signature aesthetics, including aerial work alongside white sheets that work their own homespun magic. There is one coup de theatre in which the White Witch transforms magnificently in shape and size. Even the smaller magic tricks – such as sneezes that produce flowers – bring delightful eccentricity.
The central switch in setting from the professor’s home to the ice kingdom of Narnia, with the wardrobe as a gateway, is completed within seconds and the visual thrill of this transformation is exhilarating each time we see it.
There is a magnificent gothicism to Jack Knowles’s elegantly creepy lighting and to Ian Dickinson and Gareth Tucker’s sound design. Musicians appear as ghostly spectres (they also double up as far cuter woodland animals); there is martial drumming and the dissonant chords of violins and cellos and voice distortion are used to sinister effect. Folk and ballad songs composed by Benji Bower and Barnaby Race bring a lovely musicality to the show, even if they slow the action down.
The pace has a stately grandeur; nothing is rushed and some scenes come to feel a little inert. The siblings, played efficiently by adult actors, are a little featureless at first but these are quibbles in a show that is orchestrated masterfully.
“Not all darkness can be conquered,” we are reminded and the happy ending does not feel like a foregone conclusion at all. The stakes are high and they carry us all the way.