The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of my favourite books as a child – I routinely climbed into my wardrobe and sat there, waiting for a portal to open behind my cardigans. I saw the 2005 film twice in one week at the cinema as a teenager. Yet Sally Cookson’s production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is the first live stage adaptation I’ve seen, and it’ll probably be the last, because I can’t imagine any other version bettering it.
This is a family show, but there’s a huge amount for adults to appreciate and admire. I’ll start with Rae Smith’s incredible designs: the large steam train model that weaves across the darkened stage in the hands of the cast, followed by suitcase ‘carriages’ lit from within, or the moment of Lucy’s arrival in Narnia via a slow suspended fall through two giant wardrobe doors, to reveal a stage white out simply created with hanging fabric, paper boule light shades and falling snow. In the first half’s dramatic climax, the White Witch rises up over the stage on a wire, the giant white canopy of her skirt covering the entire floor, and the eerie shadows of the demons she is summoning to fight projected onto it.
Arguably the greatest challenge of staging this book is how to portray CS Lewis’ iconic god and king character, the lion Aslan. Smith’s innovative solution is to have the actor (simply dressed in a fur coat) appear with a huge lion puppet, which is held over him like a canopy of state. It’s refreshing to see a fantasy world brought to life onstage without any digital design or modern tech – a world in which Edmund’s Turkish delight pops up through a trapdoor.
But this isn’t just about the visuals. The four Pevensie children (played by adult actors Michael Jean-Marain, Patricia Allison, John Leader and Cora Kirk) are excellent, from their exuberant energy and convincingly childlike physicality, to the heartwrenching reactions of Lucy and Susan to Aslan’s death. Carla Mendonca is a chilling and imperious White Witch, clad in a sweeping white gown and accompanied by an entourage of clownish, backchatting minions who give a more family-friendly, comical flavour to her scenes. The Witch’s right hand, the wolf Maugrim (Ira Mandela Siobhan) is a unique presence, leaping, popping and locking across the stage.
As in Cookson’s Jane Eyre, music is key and supplied by an excellent live band. The jazzy wartime songs they play at the start soon give way to folk music, with beautiful singing from Mr Tumnus (Peter Caulfield), a joyous musical set piece to celebrate the arrival of Christmas and a singing, clog-dancing Sinterklass, and a foot-stomping finale dance for the whole cast. Unlike Jane Eyre however, this music adds to the magical atmosphere and mirrors the transition from war to peace, winter to spring.
There are some very minor tweaks to the book in this production – which, impressively, has been devised by the company – for the sake of modern audiences. The blow which kills Maugrim is not administered by Peter and his sword, but by Susan and her bow, and it is Mrs Beaver who finds and rescues the children while Mr Beaver stays at home and cooks. (A side note: I loved the 1940s aesthetic that permeated Narnia – this included the animals communicating via radio code, and the Beavers’ costumes consisting of aviator hats and bomber jackets).
Overall, this is an outstanding production for both children and adults. It’s beautifully and imaginatively crafted to retain all the enchanting power of the book, and casts a spell all of its own. I highly recommend that you hop through the wardrobe to West Yorkshire Playhouse before 27 January and lose yourself in Narnia.