The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe became a classic almost from the moment the ink had dried on CS Lewis’ manuscript in 1949. Rupert Goold, who wrote and co-directed this new stage version with Michael Fentiman, has quite sensibly stuck pretty loyally to the story and all of the most memorable parts of the book are told here with charm and imagination. It would be difficult to go wrong with this formula but add to the classic story a big top tent in the middle of Kensington Gardens and some wonderful puppetry and you have a sure-fire treat.
Entering a big top tent on a sunny London day is surreal, especially when it is facing Kensington Palace, the odd dedication to Princess Di still fluttering in the breeze as you enter into the darkness of the tent. It is a good performance space - an elevated stage affording a good view from every seat - and is used effectively as characters enter from gangways in front of and behind the audience, giving a strong sense of the epic landscape of Narnia; characters travel far to arrive on the stage and we can share their sense of journey and fatigue.
The story is so familiar as to be almost hardwired into the brain of every child, partly because CS Lewis' allegory for the biblical sacrifice of Christ is both fearsome and heart-warming. During WWII, four young siblings find themselves evacuated to an old house and are left to roam freely throughout it. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, finds herself transported to the magical world of Narnia through the back of a fusty old wardrobe, where she promptly befriends a charming but mysterious fawn, Mr Tumnus. Of course nothing is as it seems and she quickly discovers Narnia is being ruled by the White Witch, an evil Queen who has usurped the rightful King, the magnificent lion Aslan. Everything is icy, nothing thrives and summer has apparently abandoned the land. In asking her siblings for help, Lucy exposes them to fractured loyalty, the pain of sacrifice and the terror and glory of battle.
All of this is portrayed in spectacular fashion. Full use is made of the vast expanse of white cloth circling above the audience; it becomes a screen for Chris Randall's wonderful projections, enveloping us in a further layer of magic. The cave paintings on the wall of Mr Tumnus' house come to life, skipping around the ceiling to illustrate the story he weaves for Lucy; later we are surrounded by icy images of snow and of splitting wood as the wardrobe is once again put to use transporting the children from the 'real' world to that of Narnia.
The wardrobe itself forms part of a clever and flexible set. Props appear from beneath the stage floor, instantaneously creating a scene before disappearing unobtrusively, the audience's attention drawn away from set changes by entertaining aerial work or the appearance of musicians, singing and dancing around the stage as we move from one scene to another. As the children are transported from the wardrobe to Narnia they are pulled high up into the air, creating a sense of weightlessness and wonder it is hard to resist.
The performances are all well pitched. The children are a perfectly balanced combination of wilful energy and noble undertakings and the dynamics between them - of competition, loyalty, mistrust and love - are all touched upon without ever labouring a point. Children in the audience are not being talked down to by any measure in this production, although the songs and costumes, particularly of the beavers and musicians, add to the sense that it is clearly targeted towards younger children rather than those approaching the 10 year mark. Sally Dexter's White Witch is entertainingly terrifying and Rebecca Benson is particularly lovable as the noble Lucy.
The real triumph of this production, however, are the puppets, particularly that of Aslan, voiced by David Suchet. Tom Scutt and Max Humphries have created a wonderfully complex puppet, full of the subtle articulation that really brings it to life. So real does Aslan seem that it is impossible not to be genuinely moved by his role in the second half of the play, even if you do already know what is coming.
This is a very unusual and effective production which, through its complex web of music, projections, puppetry and a great story, is bound to delight anyone who braves a British summer evening to see it.