It was a beautiful moment. As Aslan the lion slowly padded onto the stage in the second half of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the audience erupted into spontaneous applause. Nothing had been said and the majestic puppet had yet to actually do anything.
I’ve only seen this happen once before, when Take That reformed back in 2006 and the crowded press room started clapping before the boys had even sat down. I’m not saying I’m comparing like with like, I mean you’re not likely to see Gary Barlow singing about Christian allegory any time soon, but it goes some way to explain how the passions of our youth live on in adulthood.
As a teenager, I loved C.S Lewis’s Narnia books as much as I loved Robbie, Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason. That kind of devotion, the kind that takes root at an early age, never wanes. Some call it nostalgia but I prefer to see it as something more fundamental. Could it be magic?
Whatever the case, I really, really wanted this latest version of Lewis’s classic tale at Salford’s Lowry to be good. No, scratch that. I wanted it to be wonderful. I wanted to walk through the wardrobe, leave behind a drab wartime world, and have an adventure where fauns and badgers battle the forces of evil in a perpetual winter. Did that happen? Sort of.
There was little to fault in terms of production values and imagination. Director Michael Fentiman’s mixture of dance, puppetry and actor-musicianship elicited all the appropriate oohs and aahhs and there were some truly special touches, not least with harnesses, frocks, and wings. It ticked all manner of boxes and stuck, for the most part, pleasingly close to the story. The cast, including Peter (Ammar Duffus), Susan (Robyn Sinclair), Edmund (Shaka Kalokoh) and Lucy (Karise Yansen), were eminently watchable, and a selection of musical numbers kept young minds interested.
As The White Witch, Samantha Womack put the chill into chilling (even if the icy setting didn’t quite translate to the audience – in a never-ending winter, I was expecting some clever stagecraft to have me reaching for my cardie), but I felt let down by Chris Jared, Aslan’s human spirit. If you’re taking on the role of the one true king, then you need tremendous stage presence, or the cadence of James Earl Jones at the very least. And if the stalls, circle and gallery aren’t weeping into their M&Ms during the show’s iconic scene (you know the one I mean), then something has gone seriously wrong (they weren’t, I wasn’t).
Still, my nine-year-old niece thoroughly enjoyed her first experience of C.S. Lewis (the cat, Schrodinger, brought to life by puppeteer Oliver Grant, was a big hit), and I came away reminded of teenage evenings spent with Mr Tumnus at Cair Paravel. Now that was magic.
Main image: Samantha Womack by Seamus Ryan; other images by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is at The Lowry, Salford until January 15, 2022. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Samantha Womack, click here.