The story follows C. S. Lewis, a crusty Oxford Don, confirmed bachelor and writer of the famous Narnia books. he meets an American fan, Joy Gresham, whom he befriends and eventually marries, initially so that she can remain in England, but then finds that he truly loves here. The story deals with his struggle with personal pain and grief: Lewis preaches that one should endure suffering with patience, but finds that the simple answers he had preached no longer apply when Joy becomes afflicted with cancer and eventually dies.
I’m writing this review a good two weeks after having seen this show – a combination of work pressure and the PC at home giving huge amounts of trouble! I’m having to rely on my rather bad memory as a result, so apologies to all my readers.
To all intents and purposes, it didn’t sound like a great night out – watching a fusty old Don fall in love with a woman who then dies of cancer. But such is the power of the play – and indeed the power of love itself – that it actually turned into quite a life-affirming evening. Both Charles Dance (Lewis) and Janie Dee (Joy), gave incredibly real and moving performances, to the extent that sometimes it was actually quite painful to watch them enjoying their brief golden afternoon of happiness before Joy discovers that she has terminal cancer. Simply and movingly told, with just the right amount of stage setting - walls of books which rose and fell to represent Lewis’ college rooms, his home, a teashop, a Registry office, a hospital ward….proving that stage magic doesn’t need to be all singing, all dancing in order to convince. At two points in the play, the walls lift to reveal the doors of the famous Wardrobe, which open, allowing us to see into the world beyond – firstly a winter landscape with silver birch trees against a dark sky, with snow falling gently, and secondly the sun-drenched orchard which appears in The Magician’s Nephew. In the book, Digory picks an apple from a tree and takes it home to his dying mother, who is cured of her illness. He saves a seed and plants it and, many years later, when the resulting tree is blown over in a gale, uses the wood to make the Wardrobe through which the four Pevensie children enter in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This story is agonisingly mirrored in the play when Douglas, Joy’s young son, enters the orchard himself but finds that the magic doesn’t work in real life. Not having seen a script of the play (or indeed the film it was based on), neither of us knew whether these scenes are actually in the script or whether they were just a directorial “add in” – but by golly they worked well.
In the penultimate scene, as Joy dies in Lewis’s arms, there was one of those incredible, deep silences that you get in the theatre sometimes when the audience is so rapt (and wrapped up) with the performance that all the twitching, coughing, shuffling of programmes and blowing of noses just stops, and you can almost hear people concentrating on the action on stage. It’s almost as if peoples’ senses of sight and hearing are suddenly turned up several pitches to levels that we rarely use, and you find yourself holding your breath so as not to disturb your reception. It rarely happens, and when it does, it’s electric.
Superlatives fail me really when attempting to describe Dance’s portrayal of C. S. Lewis as a Don so crusty that you could almost see the cobwebs obscuring the windows of his mind, only to have them scattered by the fresh breeze of Janie Dee’s wonderful (and aptly named) Joy. Her New York accent, maintained scrupulously throughout the performance, was spot on. Her depiction of Joy’s courage in the face of excruciating pain was a triumph – so real that I occasionally found it difficult to bear. Richard Durden was also superb as Lewis’s fusty, crusty bachelor brother, underplaying the role nicely with superbly bumbling humour, and there was some fine support from the rest of the cast – although I do wonder about the accuracy of having the wedding ceremony carried out by a female Registrar. I don’t think Oxford was that far ahead of its time in the 1950s.
For only the second time this year, I stood to give my applause at the end (although didn’t fall over this time). What was surprising, given the audience reaction (to the play, not to my standing up!) was that I was the only person who did so.