Phallic unicorns, aubergine mink coats, growling teddy-lions and odes to sticky confectionary; all this and many more delights have puffed their way from the Edinburgh Fringe to the ADC Theatre in Charlie Arrowsmith’s rendering of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In his programme notes, Arrowsmith cannot make up his mind whether he would “rather be the child caught in the spell or the magician casting it”. The change of space has certainly brought new challenges to this production, but has he mastered the role of the theatrical magician or simply found himself caught in the spell of the venue’s spectacular tricks and gimmicks?
Children and students of Cambridge were clearly delighted to see this popular fairy tale of childhood escapism and adventure on stage, as we are spirited away from the plum-cheeked world of WWII evacuees to the fierce wonder of Narnia, where beavers knit cardigans and omnipotent lions leap through the sky. The orchestra, whose accompaniment was even slicker than in Edinburgh, is exposed to the audience when we reach Narnia. This was a smart move, drawing attention to the impossibility of staging the story without acknowledging the artifice of theatre. It is a shame, however, that this aspect of stagecraft did not steer the production throughout, as much potential for transposing the fantastic to the reality of the stage was lost in unnecessary backdrops and uneventful scene changes, such as ‘Professor Kirk’s’ fireplace that briefly appears behind him and is made laughably redundant as soon as he says: “Welcome to my study”. The machinery of the ADC has compromised the welcome simplicity of Edinburgh and leaves the concept half-baked and unsatisfying.
The slog in Edinburgh has evidently paid off and there were thrilling moments of group splendour, most notably in the menacing ‘Come to the Carnival’ number when ‘Aslan’ is slaughtered. Much of the physical performance was convincing; David Walton’s ‘Mr.Tumnus’ sustained a wonderful satyr’s shuffle, but, as with the design, there could have been so much more, as the audience were short-changed by an uninspiring giant teddy-bear when ‘Aslan’ (Sami Abu-Wardeh) plods across the stage. Striking performances came primarily from satanic characters: a wickedly sassy ‘White Witch’ (Megan Prosser), a pleasingly repellent dwarf (Lowrie Amies) and Rob Frimston’s dead-pan comic timing and sour flippancy as the prodigal brother, ‘Edmund’.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of the cast, excited gasps and applause from the audience proved that this production has managed to catch many a child in the spell of C.S.Lewis’s story. However, excluding certain new ‘explosive’ additions to the set, the show neither fully exposed its machinery nor entirely struck the audience with the smoke and mirrors of its magic, creating clumsy moments in an otherwise vibrant and entertaining children’s show.