The Birmingham REP has created a production that is the kind of heart-warming experience you want during these cold November nights. Watch as a cherished children’s classic is artistically brought back onto the stage in a spellbinding production.
Performed in 1998 at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then in 2008 at the Birmingham REP, Adrian Mitchell’s dramatisation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is back. And this time it’s bigger, on account of the ten feet high Aslan the lion; and better, due to a very dedicated cast.
Inspired by the evacuations of World War II, C.S Lewis first had the idea of writing a children’s book when several schoolgirls were evacuated to his house. The idea must have stuck with him as the books main characters – Lucy, Peter, Susan and Edmund – are English siblings that evacuate to the countryside during the World War II bombings of London.
Lucy is first to discover the world behind the wardrobe doors and makes friends with the talking faun Mr Tumnus. He tells her about the workings of the world of Narnia; the world where it is always winter, but never Christmas. Once all the children are inside the wardrobe, Edmund betrays their plans to find Aslan to the White Witch. She captures him and uses him for bait, hell-bound on preventing Narnia’s prophecy of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve to be the next King and Queen. Aslan gives his life for Edmund (don’t worry children, that’s not the last we see of him), the White Witch is defeated, and they reign as new Kings and Queens of Narnia. Eventually, they are transported back to England, where they become children once again.
Director Tessa Walker and Set Designer Jamie Vartan have used the magic of the theatre (and by that I mean the audience’s imagination and willingness to suspend their disbelief) to its full potential in this production. For audience members, the atmosphere of the fantasy world can turn the six trees on stage into a forest and a crumpled white sheet into thick inches of snow. They layer Narnia and the ordinary world on stage, and a different location is exposed to us as the story unfolds. But that’s not the only magic that takes place in this performance. There are real magic tricks that would have even Dynamo jealous, such as Aslan’s disappearance and the cracking of the stone table.
The Puppetry Director Mervyn Miller and co-designer Jo Lakin deserve a special round of applause for their simple, yet magical, designs. Based on the way children play with paper, they wanted to make the set and puppets to look like origami, but this proved practically impossible. What they’ve created instead is three-dimensional paper structures, the smallest of which being a robin and the biggest being Aslan the lion (ten feet high and fourteen feet long).
Again the audience must use their imagination, filling in the space between his head, his front and his back. Three men operate the puppet, Nuno Silva operates the head and provides the exactly the right kind of formidability and gravitas to his voice. Fastened to the second part is David Albury, by a backpack he works the front legs and paws. James Charlton, the last puppeteer, controls the main body. By studying the anatomy of a lion, the trio had nailed some very cat-like head turns and the perfect slinking movements.
However, not all characters in this performance are puppets; Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete as Mr and Mrs Beaver are hilarious, particularly Nomvete with her feisty attitude. The character of the White Witch (played by Allison McKenzie) makes a clear progression, evolving from a menacing presence that stalks the stage to a warped and unrecognisable creature.
Danielle Bird, who did operate puppets, must also be commended for her performance as Grumpskin the Dwarf. She stood out for the sheer physicality of her role (she crouched for the majority of the show), and the comic merger of a northern accent with a goblin-like, gremlin voice.
Shaun Davey’s inviting, folk-tinged style music is still just as mesmerising 17 years later, beautifully capturing the enchanted landscape of Narnia. Each character has their music, so if there is a reference to them later on, it is softly playing in the background. It happens so often – altogether there are more than 50 musical cues – it only subconsciously registers.
The REP have most definitely created a Christmas hit with this production. It is being performed from November 25th 2015 to January 16th 2016, and I urge you to take a trip to experience the icy land of Narnia; it’s spectacular.