One of the most adventurous Christmas films (well, sort of) of all time based on the nation’s Favourite Book in 2019 ahead of all seven Harry Potter volumes, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has been reincarnated as a stage show and is currently on tour, opening its secret doors to audiences across the UK. Straight from the Bridge Theatre in London, the show’s fifth stop is at The Lowry in Salford for nearly six weeks over Christmas and New Year. I went along to the opening show on this stop to see if the critical acclaim it has received so far is just and lives up to expectations. And, despite my initial concerns knowing The Lowry is not a huge theatre (further realised when I watched Death Drop there) and imagining the show’s production would be quite spectacular, it certainly did most of the time.
The show stars Samantha Womack (best known for her role as Ronnie Mitchell in Eastenders), who takes on the iconic role of the White Witch originally played by Tilda Swinton in the film, and features a host of relatively unknown yet brilliant cast members. The Pevensie children in this production have gone through the diversity mill much like many other shows (Frozen and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), with all four being played by Black actors, giving young children of colour representation on stage that is sorely missing from classic children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia. The rest of the cast are a multi-talented lot, with several playing at least two or three different roles throughout the show (for example, Johnson Willis tackles the roles of Digory Kirke, Father Christmas and two other ensemble characters) and many also making up the on-stage band of violinists, cellists, pianists, guitarists and drummers. It was a truly unique experience watching them dance, sing and play their instruments across the stage, which I have yet to see being done on other shows.
And while The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is not what I would strictly call a musical, it features a number of songs throughout. Kickstarted by a choral version of We’ll Meet Again, others include gorgeous solos by Mr Tumnus, a totally wacky yet mesmerising introductory song for Father Christmas, the dramatic Beware the Witch, foot-tapping folk dance songs and an ode about the 100 years of Winter that Narnia has endured.
What the production lacks in space on stage it makes up for in marvellous sets and staging that are distinctive and creative and they certainly make use of the stage’s great height for breathtaking scenes such as the White Witch reigning high in the air in her castle. Many of the ensemble act as inanimate objects making up the set, such as the train, lights and even a flurry of flying fur coats. Parts of the set like Mr Tumnus’ and the Beavers’ homes and the White Witch’s carriage are brought on stage in elaborate, expertly choreographed movements, while the Wardrobe always appears and disappears in either cleverly dismantled ways or through what I assume to be classic trap door trickery accompanied by dimmed, flashing lights and smoke which nonetheless still leaves you in awe.
The puppetry used on the show is innovative and reminiscent of techniques used in The Lion King musical, yet also different. The beauty of the Robin’s flight is expressed through graceful dance and the flying birds are a sight to behold as the ropes allow them to lift off and soar around the stage. But of course, it is Aslan, who had all eyes on him and his entrance. A majestically designed, bronze-looking lion worked by three puppeteers distances itself from Simba/Mufasa in The Lion King, however, as impressive as it looked and was manoeuvred, Aslan’s speaking voice was provided by a separate actor from the puppeteers. Chris Jared, who has a number of theatre credits under his belt, took on the legendary character made famous by Liam Neeson who voiced him in the films. While Neeson’s gentle and wise, yet commanding and emotive tone and delivery are hard to compare to, Jared did his best. His scenes were a little distracting though, for at times it seemed he was a separate character to Aslan the lion. Other characters would often seem like they were looking at and talking to him rather than the lion and he would take centre stage to deliver his lines while the lion stood in the background. The lion was also not present when Aslan went to the stone table, plus his appearance reminded me heavily of Thorin from The Hobbit films. And having seen images of Aslan from the stage show (whether it was the production in London or other productions), this Aslan was admittedly – even taking the smaller stage and cast into consideration – a little underwhelming.
Schrödinger the cat was also a strange addition. Another animal puppet, it looked as though you were simply watching a man run around with a toy cat in his hands.
Those slightly bizarre points aside, as well as the so-called great final battle between the two opposing sides which felt rushed in the second act and majorly downsized, the show was delightfully surprising. Quite weird in places but very wondrous throughout, the artful production brought the ancient magic of Narnia to the stage in ways that seemed a mean feat at first but proved why the charm and thrill of theatre should never be underestimated.