First Night: Classic fails to cast its magic spell

'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford
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The Independent Online
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. That is the sorry state, though, in which the country of Narnia is gripped in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The CS Lewis children's classic has been adapted by Adrian Mitchell as the first family Christmas show that has been produced on Stratford's main stage in the past 30 years.

The RSC needs a big seasonal blockbuster - the kind that can make future theatre goers of today's seven-to-14-year-olds and a small fortune for the company. Peter Pan, its London hit in the early Eighties, has ironically become a gold mine for the National Theatre, thanks to the defection to the South Bank of its co-writer and director, Trevor Nunn.

And the RSC has, to date, never found an answer to Alan Bennett's mischievous Wind in the Willows.

The omens here, however, looked good. Lewis' story is magical - even when you reach an age when you feel it is a shabby trick to sneak religious doctrine down the throats of children by reinventing Christ as a loveable, awesome lion.

I wish it was possible to report that Adrian Noble's production succeeds in conveying the book's magic. But while the show is intermittently impressive and occasionally funny, the charm and enchantment are largely ersatz and technical. It is a staging that has more money than imagination.

Paradoxically, the production scores its greatest success with the trickiest problem - how to present Aslan, the great lion-redeemer. The actor Patrice Naiambana has a superb nobility of bearing and a lusciously deep stentorian voice - in his figure-hugging gold velvet trousers, white eye make-up and orange dreadlocked mane, he strikes just the right balance between the strangely human and the other-worldly.

There is a great cheer when he finally goes for the throat of Estelle Kohler's White Witch - resplendent with her tiara of silver frosted ostrich feathers and an ice-winged chariot pulled by two male ballet dancers sporting large antlers.

But too much of the show lacks genuine warmth and has a hollow feel. The songs are resolutely lacklustre, with lyrics that sometimes verge on the fatuous. When the witch corrupts William Mannering's excellent Edmund, he sings: "Turkish delight/Chunky and chewy/and sweet and bright." Sweet and bright? Surely a weird feature of a confectionery so cloudy looking.

The famous wardrobe revolves on cue, depositing the children in a winter- gripped Narnia fringed with frozen sea fern.

There are one or two winning performances here - from Geoffrey Freshwater as a beaver, and Nicholas Khan as the witch's wolfish secret police chief. You are never convinced, however, that this show is a labour of love.