It is a magical setting: an elegant white circus tent in the lush green parkland next to Kensington Palace (William and Kate’s back yard). But the familiar tale of the Pevensie children, who find themselves evacuated from the Blitz into a world of witches, giants, talking animals (and a large number of royals) is a wintry one, which would be more suitable at Christmas. “But it’s May!” Susan cries when Father Christmas arrives on his sleigh, the audience sharing her bemusement on a sweltering summer’s evening.
Co-directors Rupert Goold and Michael Fentiman’s production is full of aesthetic flair. The ThreeSixty Theatre tent is used from every angle as a screen on which the scenery is digitally projected. Snowflakes submerge the wooden panels and windows of the Professor’s house as Lucy (an excellent Rebecca Benson) disappears into the wardrobe and first enters Narnia. As she meets Mr Tumnus (an underused Forbes Masson) the tent walls become his cave. And so on, taking us through icy landscapes to the witches’ castle, starry skies and lonely hills, the flickering walls changing without the clunking on-off of scenery flats.
The adaptation is largely true to the format of C.S Lewis’ famous children’s book. But the first half seems rushed and the characterisation is thin. It is all about the spectacle: flying children on trapezes (for no particular reason), actors on hugely tall stilts, elaborate animal costumes inspired by Siberian tribal dress. The performances aren’t bad. The Pevensie children carry it nicely. Notable of the quartet was sensible elder sister Susan, played by Carly Bawden.
Things pick up in the second half with the arrival of Aslan. The pre-recorded voice of David Suchet emanates from a beautiful lion puppet operated by three actors. Aslan’s mane is made from golden autumn leaves, his majestic face nuzzles Lucy one minute and terrifies the witch with his roar the next. He stole the show. By contrast, Sally Dexter as the White Witch felt a bit bland. She played it very safe, screeching and stamping her feet, but without any real menace.
There are several songs with dancing, some of which are nice (such as the Beavers’ gyratory ditty). But the directorial decision to incorporate long musical numbers while racing through the story and skipping over the detail is a bad one. It added to the spectacle but seemed to the detriment of character development and plot, leaving the production feeling all razzle dazzle and no heart.
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