Review: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (Theatre Royal Glasgow)
Updated: Jun 1
In the grand scheme of things, a show’s design is rarely the most important part. Sure, it can be memorable, tie everything together and even make your jaw drop, but sometimes all you need to bring a show to life is a chair. But when you hear that something like The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is being performed, expectations are high. The world of Narnia is one of the most magical and visually rich worlds ever written or put on screen. And for this production in particular, directed by Michael Fentiman and with tour set and costumes designed by Tom Paris, the design really is the most important part.
To start there is the backdrop, a massive steampunk-style blue and gold clock face. It is striking and beautiful at first but makes less and less sense as the play continues. Why does the grand final battle look like it takes place in a clock tower or a jet engine, for example? No matter, what about the threshold moment when Lucy (Karsie Yansen) enters Narnia for the first time? She steps through the wardrobe, there is a (clumsy) flurry of activity as the choreographers reverse their fur coats to reveal white interiors, snow falls from the sky, and…that’s pretty much it. Not much about this "transformation" lingers for more than five minutes either. Ok, we’ll take Lucy’s word for it, and ignore that this winter wonderland isn’t all that different from the spare room she just left. Perhaps the puppets will be the saving grace. The puppeteers are certainly talented, but the puppets themselves are inconsistent and underwhelming; Schrödinger the cat looks more dead than alive, and the choice to colour Aslan the lion cardboard-brown detracts from the impressive construction. But the crowning glory is Santa’s visit. With little build-up or suspense, Santa bursts onto the stage with his own number, dressed as an enormous, fringe tassel-ed Scandinavian-style gnome, accompanied by square-dancing reindeer dressed in lederhosen. It's almost so bad it’s good.
An uninspired design is one thing, but the mismatched confusion of Paris’s design is hopelessly distracting. The details are too random to appreciate, and the overall result is too incoherent to capture your imagination. Unfortunately, the direction doesn’t provide much clarity, despite the efforts of the cast. Samantha Womack, for the time she is on stage, is exactly as steely and evil as you would expect from the White Witch. Chris Jared plays Aslan with a forceful presence, which is impressive given the inherent blandness of his character. The only performance that disappoints is Sam Buttery as the whiney and overly-talkative Mr Beaver. The children are all polished and characterful (especially Shaka Kalokoh as the young and selfish Edmund), but their greatest achievement is that they can keep up with the pace. There are characters to meet, contexts to be established, and religious allegories to be hammered home, and most of this comes in the form of heavy exposition with little pay-off. The pace never lets up, and for any audience members who are unfamiliar with the story, it will feel more like a chore than a journey.
This production of The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe is by no means a half-assed effort, but it is a confused one. Either ambition overstepped achievability, or excitement overstepped logic. What I marvel at is how a show with a dramaturg (someone whose role includes giving feedback with little or no creative involvement, in this case Adam Peck) can end up looking and performing as though no one had the big picture in mind. It may be that Narnia should never be performed on stage, or it may be that this production just doesn’t do C.S. Lewis’ classic justice. The lesson here is don’t promise the world if you are only going to build the wardrobe. Two stars.
Whispers from the Crowd
Parent/guardian: It was amazing, really professional.
Child: It was just like the book!