Theatre: Narnia: the expensive version

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE RSC, STRATFORD

A LAND where it is "always winter but never Christmas": that sounds like a prospect most parents could cope with pretty well at this time of year. Better than the reverse, certainly. It's also the sorry state in which the country of Narnia is gripped in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, CS Lewis's children's classic, adapted now by Adrian Mitchell as the first family Christmas show that has been produced on Stratford's main stage in the last 30 years.

The RSC needs a big seasonal blockbuster - a reply to the National Theatre's inspired pairing of Alan Bennett and The Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan, the company's London hit in the early Eighties, has ironically become a goldmine for their rival, thanks to the defection to the South Bank of Trevor Nunn, its co-director and adapter.

You might have thought that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe would provide the answer. Lewis's story continues to exert its magical spell, even when you're old enough to think that it's a slightly shabby trick to sneak religious notions into children's minds by reinventing Christ as a lovable, awesome lion. But from the opening scene here, it's evident that Adrian Noble's production possesses more money than imagination. It's mentioned at the start of the book that the four children have been sent to the old professor's country house as wartime evacuees. So we are treated to a spectacular and unnecessary sequence involving St Paul's, searchlights, and the drone of bombers, and then, that tired old standby for getting a round of applause, a miniature steam train puffing its way across the stage.

I was unable to take my children to the press night, a fact I regretted less and less as the evening wore on. For while the show is intermittently impressive, and occasionally funny, its charm and enchantments are largely ersatz and technical. Paradoxically, the production scores its greatest success with the trickiest problem: how to present Aslan, the great lion- redeemer. The black actor Patrice Naiambana has a superb nobility of bearing, and lusciously deep stentorian tones; with his figure-hugging gold velvet trousers, white eye make-up and orange dreadlock mane, he strikes a perfect balance between the strangely human and the otherworldly.

Unlike the Young Vic's traditionally splendid Christmas shows, which stimulate the imagination by giving it tantalising prompts, this production does all the work for you. The famous wardrobe duly rears up out of the stage, revolves and deposits the children in a Narnia like a snow globe, fringed with whitened sea fern. The most winning creatures are Geoffrey Freshwater's lovely Mr Beaver, who has clearly modelled himself on one of Dickens's comic heart-of-gold types, and Nicholas Khan's evil, fanged Maugrim. But, lumbered with distinctly lacklustre songs, a huge cast of fauns, dryads, reindeer, unicorns, tree spirits etc, fail to convince that this oddly unengaging occasion is a labour of love.

A version of this review appeared in some later editions of yesterday's paper

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