WYP audiences have been spoilt, perhaps, by Little Shop of Horrors and The Wind in the Willows in the last two years, to expect glorious scenic extravagance in its Christmas offering for kids. So this year it seems a bit spartan.
With a couple of cut-off curved stairways going nowhere except around on revolves, and various spectral coat-shaped hangings sporadically filling space just for the sake of it. A downstage eye-in-the-sky roves left to right and back again reflecting projections also shown on a skew-whiff screen upstage - to very little purpose. It's all disappointingly pedestrian.
Adrian Mitchell's stage adaptation of the C S Lewis Christian allegory starts, properly enough, on a London railway station as four sibling youngsters are evacuated in the early 1940s to stay with the benevolent Professor Kirk and his austere below stairs staff. The Professor turns out to be appropriately doubled in the casting with Father Christmas, but other apposite doubling is eschewed.
The four children, who find their way, via a singularly unprepossessing little wardrobe (except for the fact that it is the only object on the set and thus bound to be investigated), to Narnia, are played by young adults, very much in the manner of the Comic Strip playing Enid Blyton's Famous Five - it falls only just short of excruciating, without the bonus of being funny. Although all are doubtless fine actors.
Over in Narnia, we find a Mr Tumnus, a Mr Beaver and a Mrs Beaver (Ian Conningham, David Streames and Lisa Howard) who are all very engaging but singularly unmenaced by a merely rather severe White Witch (Ellen O'Grady), who in turn only finds cuddly old lion Aslan (Michael Skyers) a bit of a handful. Well, great not to scare the kiddies, but whatever happened to serious dramatic conflict?
Russell Dixon, who doubles the roles of Professor Kirk and Father Christmas, is one of the finest actors on the northern circuit (and, incidentally, ex-RSC), who in only recent memory carried off the Manchester Evening News Best Actor Award for work at the Royal Exchange. Whilst he is doubtless not averse to an easy time over Christmas, it is preposterous to see him treading water like this for just a few minutes on stage.
There are some songs in this adaptation, too, though it's not clear why. They are not remotely organic and serve merely to stop the action in its tracks.
Alas, director Ian Brown, who has done so much that is right since his arrival at the WYP, simply hasn't got the measure of this one. I watched it surrounded by a house full of school parties: they were respectfully silent throughout and clapped politely at the end - this in a theatre more accustomed to stamping, cheering kids.
- Ian Watson