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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

by on 14 January 2022

A Lion in Winter

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

music and lyrics by Irita Kutchmy, based on the novel by C.S. Lewis

Step on Stage Productions, Youth Theatre at Hampton Hill Theatre until 15th January

Review by Andrew Lawston

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a great choice for youth theatre.  Aside from the enduring popularity of CS Lewis’s original novel, the central four characters are children, and many of the supporting cast are talking animals or mythical creatures.  The story can be told in a big-budget Hollywood production, but with the book’s emphasis on the characterisation of the four Pevensey children, it’s equally possible to envisage a tiny fringe adaptation with a cast of half a dozen.  Or, indeed, Irita Kutchmy’s musical version, as we’re seeing tonight at Hampton Hill Theatre.

C,S, Lewis

From the opening ensemble number, the eponymous The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, however, it’s clear that Step On Stage Productions are committed to a huge undertaking.  The song sees most of the numerous young cast on stage as evacuees being waved off to the countryside by parents.  Laden with suitably scuffed suitcases and gas mask boxes, the large ensemble sings with gusto, before the action switches to the Professor’s house, with its staircase, landing, and of course the eponymous wardrobe.  The Professor is played by Nils Collin, who looks marvellously comfortable in his country house, pipe in his hand, relaxed and thoughtful.  He later also operates Aslan and provides the lion’s voice, in a contrastingly energetic but equally compelling performance.

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are swiftly introduced, and are instantly likeable and recognisable as a realistic bunch of sometimes-squabbling, sometimes-united siblings.  There is a distinct pecking order, with Julia Crisostomi’s stoic Peter projecting natural authority over the group, to the chagrin of Masha Kondratyeva’s sulky Edmund.  Zoe Chaytow’s compassionate Susan seems determined to stand in for the siblings’ absent mother, though she isn’t above teasing Lucy when she first appears with stories of a magical kingdom in the wardrobe.

The first act of the play is led by Lucy, the youngest child and the group’s innocent.  She’s played with great gusto and charm by Meg Chaytow, and as such she carries the scenes that introduce us to Narnia, the fantasy land of talking animals and endless winter that lies through the wardrobe in an otherwise empty spare room.  It could be said of the original book that there is at least one trip too many to Narnia before the four children end up in the snow together and begin their adventure properly, but director (and musical director) Emma Louise McCauley-Tinniswood never lets the pace and energy drop, and energetic songs such as Please Come To Tea, Teasing Song, and Turkish Delight all keep things moving.

The faun, Mr Tumnus is also an instant delight as played by Natalia Wesolowska.  Our first glimpse of the fantastical characters that populate Narnia, Natalia’s Tumnus has not only perfects the character’s sweet, slightly fussy charm, he also seems to be wearing an iconic Doctor Who scarf, which is a lovely little flourish.

Meanwhile of course, Edmund is off being fed Turkish Delight by the White Witch and her henchmen.  Tilly Cooke visibly glories in the luxury of playing such an irredeemably unpleasant but charismatic villain, stalking the stage with her magnificent glowing staff, while the audience simply fell in love instantly with William McCauley-Tinniswood as her bloodthirsty diminutive accomplice, Maugrim.

Eventually all four children are chased into the wardrobe by noises offstage – Mrs Mcready is leading a tour group through the house.  (They are apparently scared of Mrs Mcready, but the good lady seems to be perfectly pleasant whenever she appears on stage.)  Led away from Mr Tumnus’s ransacked home by a simple but wonderfully effective robin puppet operated by Jago Liebrand, they soon find themselves on a mission to meet Lord Aslan and end the reign of the White Queen.  The children are soon accompanied by Mr and Mrs Beaver, played by Rosie Campbell and Bella Gale respectively.  Both actors convey the characters’ essential kindness well, undercut with an earnest urgency that raises the tension.  When Edmund sneaks away during a musical number, the curtains close on the first act just as it feels the story is really kicking into high gear.

The show’s second half initially feels like a much darker tale.  Edmund’s betrayal of his family and Aslan to the White Witch remains a startling moment in a children’s story, and Masha Kondratyeva pulls off a difficult balance of depicting this spiteful and jealous act without alienating the audience from Edmund completely.  While the clear implication (alluded to by Mr Beaver) is that Edmund is at least partially bewitched by enchanted Turkish Delight, Edmund’s behaviour feels rational, calculating, and ruthless – summed up in Edmund’s Song.

Edmund quickly realises the error of his ways as the White Queen joyfully vamps her way through for me the best of the show’s musical numbers, The White Witch Rules OK.

Meanwhile Jasper Simmons’ enthusiastic Father Christmas visits Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Mr and Mrs Beaver, handing out weapons “and not toys” as presents.  It’s a curious scene that both breaks the tension, as the flamboyant Father Christmas interrupts a tense chase across Narnia, and also highlights the high stakes of the battle to come.

Once Aslan finally appears, after much of the first two-thirds of the play has been spent discussing him, he is brought to life wonderfully as another Zoe Jones puppet, operated by Joshua Shearer and Nils Collin, with Nils also providing the lion’s voice.  Aslan’s confrontation with the White Witch is played completely straight, and it’s impressive how the cast flip between the show’s lighter moments and its serious scenes effortlessly, despite half of them being dressed in animal costumes.

Aslan’s sacrifice is also played unflinchingly, although the lion is humiliated through the White Witch’s mocking song Here Comes the Cat rather than the brutal scene in the book where he is muzzled, and has his mane shaved.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has a wordy script, and the cast deliver it with assurance, while also doing the many songs justice.  The band, including Sarah Jones on flute and clarinet, and Byron Cox on percussion, fill the auditorium with the sound of a much larger ensemble.  The set design is deceptively simple, the staircase which is used both in the house and in Narnia provides a great deal of visual interest as it enables the action to take place on multiple levels, and provides an extra exit when the large cast is clearing the stage.  The revolving wardrobe is also a practical solution to the special effect of characters moving between our world and Narnia.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is an ambitious but confident production led by a young cast who have clearly put their hearts and souls into the show.

Andrew Lawston, January 2022

Photography by Jonathan Berry and Matt Bedford

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