By C.S. Lewis
Dramatized by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Avon Theatre, June 2-November 13, 2016,/b>
I admit to not having read any of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales until a month or two ago, so I cannot call myself a true blue fan—unlike the rather snotty boy seated beside me at a matinee. When I asked if he had read the fiction, he replied, smart phone in hand: “Well, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t, would I?” I hope will be as avid a reader of Shakespeare when he sees a Stratford Shakespearean production. But the truth is that no one has to be familiar with the fable before seeing Adrian Mitchell’s skilful adaptation (originally for the RSC), directed lovingly and with read charm by Tim Carroll. This production will make children of us all, in the best sense because it invokes our imagination the way any good fantasy does. And it releases its story through an old wardrobe.
The back story behind this device is interesting. An Oxford don, C.S. Lewis lived outside the city in a large house where he hosted young children who had been evacuated from London to escape Nazi bombardment. One of these children became fascinated by an old wardrobe in one of the bedrooms and wondered what might be in it. Lewis drew on this child’s curiosity to shape his Chronicles of Narnia, and Tim Carroll’s fabulous production (pun intended) channels Lewis’s flights of fancy with admirable simplicity and imaginative inventiveness.
Carroll remembers what it is like to be a child, especially one who has to deal with adults, what it means to be called a liar when a better word might be an imaginer. And running true to the spirit of literature, he frames his handsome production with a literary emblem: a world of books. The most significant characters and props are made of paper and book bindings, beginning (in Douglas Paraschuk’s splendid design) with Professor Kirk’s house, continuing with a book-bedecked alternative universe on the other side of the wardrobe, and reaching a glorious high point with the awesomely regal approach of Aslan, whose giant head, torso, and paws are made of scraps of paper like a huge animal puppet, with two humans controlling his movements from within his paper hide. Alexis Milligan’s puppets (large and small) owe a debt to War Horse and The Lion King, but this does not diminish their appeal, and Aslan’s death and resurrection are striking coups de theatre, certain to be show-stopping moments.
Carroll also re-visits wartime England and the issue of evacuated children, for his production starts with the horrors of the London Blitz when the four Pevensie children take a railway carriage (a mere representation of one) from London to presumed safety in the countryside and the abode of Professor Kirk (a stern, tousle-haired Tom McCamus) and his Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Macready (Rosemary Dunsmore). Right from the start, Carroll has superb creative collaborators in Brad Peterson (projections), Kevin Fraser (lighting), the late Todd Charlton (sound), and, of course, the afore-mentioned Douglas Paraschuk. The Blitz scene and evacuation are rendered dramatically by lanterns in pouring dark and silhouettes on a cyclorama, and after the children pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, the décor shifts to a winter scene of stone statues and fifty shades of fir in a winter wonderland.
Dana Osborne’s costumes come to the fore with the appearances of Steve Ross’s Mr. Beaver (and his large whimsical tail), Barbara Fulton’s buck-toothed Mrs. Beaver, Sean Arbuckle’s Giant Rumblebuffin, Mike Nadajewski’s Mr. Tumnus (a tearful faun with butter hoofs), and Yanna McIntosh’s glitteringly evil White Witch, who delights in turning enemies to stone and making Narnia a place where it is “always winter and never Christmas.”
But the beguilement is not entirely a matter of projections and puppets, décor and lighting, costumes and sound effects. It is also certainly not because of the music and songs, which often sound tonally wrong. Much of the charm lies in the acting ensemble, particularly Nadajewski’s Tumnus, but strong points are also scored by Sara Farb’s sweet-natured Lucy; Ruby Joy’s caring, motherly Susan; Andre Morin’s conflicted Edmund); Gareth Potter’s stalwart, heroic Peter; and Tom McCamus’s Aslan (though McCamus does not show much vocal differentiation between his Professor and the lion). Little wonder that this show is the hottest ticket so far this season.