Sadler's Wells Theatre, London WC1
Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
December, 2001

I was frankly astounded to be so impressed and engrossed by The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Since its première three years ago, the RSC's Christmas show (now at Sadler's Wells) has become a seasonal fixture, with all the lowered expectations that might bring to a jaded critic True, Adrian Mitchell's adaptation occasionally falls prey to the problem of having characters recite descriptive passages, but only in the early stages and not to anything like the extent which bedevils his adaptation of the Alice books currently playing at the Barbican. For unlike those works, the first of C.S. Lewis's Narnia chronicles is a story rather than a series of images and set-pieces

More than a story, in fact: the programme notes stress that Lewis found himself creating not simply an allegory for the Christian virtues in action in a fairy-tale setting, but a full-fledged mythos. Consequently, the narrative events of the four children's role in banishing the evil White Witch with the help of the messianic lion Aslan resonate within our own thoughts and emotions. More than twenty-five years after reading the book as a twelve-year-old, I find that the material can still access feelings at once simple and complex, and surprisingly deep.

Sylvester McCoy can be guaranteed to put in a gleeful turn as Mr Beaver, although even he is sometimes bettered by Susan Jane Tanner as his wife. Patrice Naiambana as Aslan moves and (if you see what I mean) even speaks at every moment like the king of the cat family. Maureen Beattie even brings to the White Witch a moment or two of the black delight of her recent Medea. The whole evening is a rich and captivating experience. The programme also inadvertently includes a reminder of the grim side of Christmas: the biography of Jon Key, as the Witch's tiny henchman Grumpskin, records that his previous theatre appearances include over a dozen stints in Snow White And The Seven Dwarves; how frustrating such routine casting must be for an actor of restricted growth.

Frustration of a different kind at Charlie Lavender: A Bankside Boy at the Southwark Playhouse. Stewart Permutt's story of a young Thames-side "mudlark", who leaves off scavenging the river's jetsam to break into Buckingham Palace for an audience with Queen Victoria and along the way foils a (cack-handed) plot to drive her off the throne, is in the kind of narrative register which used to be seen in BBC-TV's Sunday-teatime costume dramas for children. It is on the overwritten side, and peppered with neologisms (would Benjamin Disraeli really have used the word "feisty"?), but intelligent and entertaining for the right audience.

Unfortunately, on the evidence of the afternoon performance I saw, it may not be getting that audience. The young primary school party with whom I shared the auditorium were well disciplined and quiet for the most part, but came alive only for the few brief sequences of knockabout, and to chatter in the blackouts between scenes. Much of the story, and most of the gags, seemed to pass them by. The show works on its own terms, but those are not, I think, terms for those under about eleven years of age.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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