There’s a ramshackle spectacle to Sally Cookson’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – the sort of delicious, homemade tactility which will be familiar to Cookson devotees (not seeing her Jane Eyre remains one of my top five theatre-going regrets). It’s the delight in being able to see the effort which goes into heaving a glorious vision to its feet, the collective power of an ensemble at work. At its best, watching it is akin to tucking into a hearty stew sopped up with crusty bread, rather than a chilly, Michelin star tasting menu with a sparkler stuck on top.
Because you do get all the things you might expect from a family Christmas show – beautiful puppets, balletic aerial sequences, big dance numbers – but what lingers in the memory are the wiry seams piercing through the velvet. You remember the puppeteer who controls Aslan’s curling, swooping tail with utter care, you remember the genuine delight in the actors’ faces as they swing over the stalls, you remember the wonderfully off-kilter nature of those dances which feel like they might burst off the stage.
It doesn’t feel immersive – it doesn’t feel like you’ve been transported into Narnia – and you’re consistently aware that you’re sitting in a theatre with hundreds of others, watching a group onstage put on a show. For the most part, that’s to its benefit. It’s artifice, but without the pejorative connotations. It’s artifice as a means of drawing attention to craft, humanity, and effort. The gap Cookson leaves is deliberate – a proposition to the audience. “Think of the mind as a parachute,” Wil Johnson’s Professor Kirk tells the initially sceptical Susan and Peter. “It only works when it’s open.” Cookson leaves just enough space to let the imagination flourish, like green shoots curling out of ice-hardened earth. It all feels so delightfully tangible, so endearing in its conceptual simplicity, reminiscent of the pretend games you played as a child – duvet covers become costumes, green train tickets become leaves shaking off ice, white sheets become the snow covering Narnia in an unending winter. All it takes is a little imagination. Make-believe is good for us. We’d all do well to be more childlike, Cookson suggests. Is this show all about the magic of theatre? That’s a little sentimental, but it’s nearly Christmas, so yes, I think it is. Or at least, the power of the imagination, the possibility of man’s perfectibility (was C.S. Lewis a Marxist?), and the necessity of telling stories in times of great political and societal strain.
Because the fantasy world Cookson creates is bound tightly to the so-called “real” world, close enough that you can see the porousness of the barrier. There’s the suggestion that, of course, this all takes place in the collective imagination of the children –Johnson’s Professor Kirk, their foster father, doubles as Aslan, and Laura Elphinstone, as Mrs Macready as Kirk’s housekeeper, doubles as the White Witch. Blitz Britain bleeds into Narnia – various woodland inhabitants communicate “Operation Stone Table” through tin-can phones in clipped accents – but the parallel is rarely laboured. Cookson knows well enough when to let the audience alone (though she does good-naturedly indulge in a few broadly panto moments).
On a more molecular level, there are moments of such pure joy and invention that it almost made me, a notorious Grinch, gasp with delight. Cookson’s speciality is in specifics, her investment in the tiny moments alongside the gargantuan – that (alongside Dan Canham’s gorgeous, sinewy movement sequences) is what makes her work so full-bodied. Craig Leo’s puppets are, of course, breath-taking – Aslan majestically plumed with rainbow feathers, the army of mice who provide much-needed help to Susan and Lucy completely adorable, and Professor Kirk’s fluffy cat, Schrodinger (I must say, a groan-worthy moment), is a ginger-furred delight, puppeteered with great sensitivity and humour by David Emmings. As Aslan, Johnson is, well, leonine and, somewhat unexpectedly, very chill vibes, with both him and his tie-dyed entourage looking a little like they just strolled out of Woodstock, dude. It’s in sharp contrast to Elphinstone’s White Witch, whose wiry white crown and tightly coiled demeanour just screams “raging Virgo,” surrounded by her white morph-suited lackeys who look appropriately weird, if not at all threatening. It’s Omari Bernard as Maugrim who brings the edge, all rippling, raw physicality, brimming with menace, snarling with relish up and down the aisles at any child (or adult) who looks askance.
It’s a shame, then, that cushioning the sparkling, shimmering moments is a generally pretty bloated text. Excess is welcomed at Christmas, but at 2 hours 40, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe drags. Dramaturgically, it all feels a little lopsided, a little disjointed – it lingers in the “real” world before our eventual entrance into Narnia, perhaps in an attempt to make that long-awaited traversal feel all the more epic, but in actuality spending a little too much time on a ponderous setup. And Aslan and the White Witch’s ferocious, climactic confrontation is strangely rushed, ushered into something that feels compacted and undeserved. And that aforementioned distance, which does have its delights, inevitably leads to a certain sense of remove. That could too have something to do with the end-on orientation – the production at Leeds Playhouse was in the round, and I do wonder why that wasn’t also applied at the Bridge. Cookson has characters popping in and out of the audience, as is perhaps customary with a family show, but it never feels totally convincing – always a little half-hearted. Then again, I am in some (though not all) respects a crusty, cynical adult, and maybe my imagination could use a good shaking to get the dust and cobwebs off.
Rae Smith’s design compromises of a smooth, blackened stone stage, run through with fissures which glow silver when the White Witch glides over her kingdom, then a fresh green when spring returns to Narnia, and then a warm orange when Aslan strides serenely onto the scene. And the cracks are suggestive of division, yes, but also of potential, of opportunities for growth – the children traverse over the fissures, transgress the boundaries between worlds with relative ease, finding common ground with friendly fauns and talking animals. There’s a reassuring simplicity in that deterministic, ultimate fight between Good and Evil. The porousness of these worlds is inherently full of optimism – returning from Narnia, the children bring their newfound wisdom, their maturity, their love, their forgiveness. When you look at the edges of the stage, you see the glittering, craggy green quartz hidden beneath the level, blank surface. Hope is there, Smith and Cookson suggest, if you just look for it.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is on at Bridge Theatre until 2nd February 2019. More info and tickets here.