Review: 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' at West Yorkshire Playhouse

  • Adam Bruce 

OnStage Blog United Kingdom Critic

If panto isn’t your thing at Christmas - even if there is an infinite number of times you can enjoy having Wagon Wheels or other suitable confectionery thrown at your head - then you’re in luck this season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Following on from their staging of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom: the Musical last year, the Playhouse has chosen to run with yet another alternative to beanstalks. Up until the end of January next year, the Quarry Stage is playing host to a new adaptation of C.S Lewis’ classic The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and with no Wagon Wheels in sight, I took my seat in the theatre.

I’m sure you’ve read the books or seen the film by now, but just in case you haven’t, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe brings us to the Blitz-torn 1940s, where the four Pevensie children Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy (Michael Jean-Marain, John Leader, Patricia Allison and Cora Kirk respectively) are evacuated to the countryside to live with a mysterious professor. While playing in the house on a typically English rainy summer’s day, Lucy discovers a giant wardrobe, and upon stepping inside and rummaging through some old fur coats, finds herself in the magical world of Narnia. Finding herself and her siblings at the heart of an ancient prophecy in which they are the only ones who can end the reign of the White Witch (Carla Mendonça) and fight alongside the mighty lion Aslan (Iain Johnstone), the children prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. 

There are a great deal of audience expectations standing on the shoulders of this narrative and any adaptation it finds itself in. The 2005 film adaptation continued to cement the legendary status of the book, and cinematically immortalised the world of Narnia to incredible effect; how could future adaptations capture the sheer scale and magic of Lewis’ world? It’s a mammoth task indeed - but acclaimed director Sally Cookson has most certainly crafted a theatrical triumph in the undertaking of such a mammoth task. Her adaptation is breathtaking and gripping from start to finish, harnessing the pure power of imagination inherent within both the original novel and the nature of theatrical storytelling. 

Her first step to achieving an accessible, communal sense of shared experience throughout her adaptation, which extends the magical reach of her piece, is placing the Quarry Theatre’s stage set up in the round. Think of it like a giant campfire in which the audience gather around, watching the stories of a transcendent past unfold before their eyes. The physical, energetic style of storytelling, one which can only be brought about as a by-product of the devised nature of this adaptation, lends itself well to the high fantasy style of Lewis’ classic narrative. 

The entire ensemble of performers, displaying artistic mastery and sheer joy in their multi-faceted performative undertakings, including puppetry, aerial performance and live music, should be commended for their outstanding efforts. The four Pevensie children, who, in being played by young adults, shine brightly and cast an interesting authorial sense of retrospect on the proceedings - as in, they’re able to encourage to look back on their own childhoods and inspire a new generation of young people to carry on the tradition of keeping Lewis’ narrative alive. Such directorial intentions encourage the audience to add their own kindling to the roaring fire appropriated by Cookson’s bold stylistic storytelling decisions.

Add into the mix a beautiful scenography, composed of stunning work by designer Rae Smith, lighting designer Bruno Poet and sound designer Ian Dickinson and you’ve got a truly magical experience unfolding before you. With charming performances and a truly imaginative approach to telling this classic tale, this production makes for a moving and inspiring piece of theatre this Christmas season.