William Nicholson’s award-winning 1990 play Shadowlands returned to the West End last night (8 October, previews from 3 October), opening at Wyndham’s Theatre, where Charles Dance and Janie Dee (pictured) star for a limited season until 15 December (See News, 13 Aug 2007).

Set in Oxford in the 1950s, Shadowlands tells the true love story of CS Lewis (Dance) and Joy Gresham (Dee). Lewis, a leading Christian academic and author of many classic books including The Chronicles of Narnia, remained a bachelor until his fifties, when he met Joy. Enchanted by the American divorcee, he secretly married and cared for her when she became terminally ill. His encounter with love and loss led him to reconsider many of the beliefs he had previously held so staunchly.

The original 1990 West End production starred Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Lapotaire and transferred to Broadway. Nicholson adapted his play – which won the Evening Standard Award for Play of the Year and was nominated for three Oliviers and the Tony for Best Play - for a 1993 film which starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and was directed by Richard Attenborough.

The new production, the first out of the stable of Richmond Theatre Productions, is directed by Michael Barker-Caven and designed by Matthew Wright. The cast also features John Standing, Richard Durden and Graham Padden.

First night critics seemed well and truly enchanted by this “powerful” revival of Nicholson’s thoughtful tearjerker, thanks largely to the lead actors. More than review described Charles Dance as a “revelation” in the role of CS Lewis, and none failed to be moved by his “beautifully quiet, understated performance”. Equally impressive as the object of his affections was Janie Dee. In the critics’ minds, the high quality performances are enhanced in Michael Barker-Caven's “adroit” production by Matthew Wright’s “efficient” and “expressionistic” design which gives the audience glimpses of Narnia, the world created by Lewis.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “William Nicholson’s Shadowlands has stood the test of time as an unlikely love story for over 20 years … Michael Barker-Caven’s adroit revival at Wyndham’s does two big things: it restores the tautness of the storytelling, and reinforces the ‘unlikeliness’ by casting two fine actors operating beyond their predictable range. Charles Dance, as CS Lewis, is something of a revelation ... Matthew Wright’s efficient design of towering library shelves and silhouetted café tables splits open to reveal the magical forest of Narnia … Dee is delightful, as ever, and brings both sparkle and attack to the role. There’s good support, too, from John Standing as a blustery old academic and Richard Durden … Without tearing a passion to tatters, the play does its work in a quiet and engaging manner and all involved avoid sloppy sentimentality like the plague.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “I found myself more moved this time round than by the 1989 production: partly because it is rare now to find a West End play that addresses the issue of mortality, and partly because of the quality of the acting … Dance, punctuating his speech with tiny snorts and giggles, and forever jangling the keys in his pockets, captures perfectly Lewis' emotional shyness … It is a beautifully quiet, understated performance; it is to Dance's credit he suggests the notion that earthly life is a mere shadowland offers scant consolation when confronted by a painful death … The supreme virtue of Michael Barker-Caven's production, however, is that it proves the play is much more than a Goodbye Mr Chips-style tearjerker. Its real subject is faith and doubt, and what it shows is how the protracted death of a loved one rattles even the staunchest Christian certainty.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now: William Nicholson’s Shadowlands is back and once again it proves the full three-handkerchief weepy … The piece is beautifully played in Michael Barker-Caven’s production, set amid looming bookcases that part to reveal glimpses of Narnia. Charles Dance superbly captures that inarticulate diffidence that was once such an easily mocked feature of the English personality, but which is infinitely preferable to today’s sloppy emotionalism … What Dance magnificently captures, in fact, is a man belatedly discovering what it is to be fully human. Janie Dee is equally fine as his beloved Joy, bringing some welcome comedy and a delicious sense of mischief to the stage in a piece that could seem merely lachrymose, while also communicating the sharpness of her character’s suffering and the warmth of her heart.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “What theatrical power survives in William Nicholson's famous, religious tear-jerker! It is, though, thanks to Charles Dance's extraordinarily moving performance that 17 years after its premiere, Shadowlands does not seem a trite piece of religious pleading … Dance takes to perfection the real-life role of the Oxford bachelor don, scholar and children's writer CS Lewis, who discovers love in his late fifties … Matthew Wright's expressionistic set, a room enclosed with towering, 14-feet high shelves of books that unfortunately look like dummies, suitably reeks of claustrophobia … Dance proves a revelation. He turns himself into a man ill at ease in his own body, adopting an awkward, lop-sided stance and bony gestures that betray the fact. He never cares or dares to catch Joy's eyes … He makes the worldly process of self-discovery, love and grief both exhilarating and overwhelmingly poignant.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Last night one soon forgot Dance’s slimline glamour in one’s appreciation of a subtle, delicate account of a man waylaid by feelings he never knew he possessed. And Janie Dee, an actress who grows in stature with every stage outing, successfully catches Joy’s abrasiveness, her unpretentious devotion, the exhausting agony of the cancer that killed her … Much of the play is funnier than I recall from seeing it either on TV or the stage … A play that may not delve all that deeply, but treats topics all too seldom aired in our theatres and, not least, leaves you feeling that suffering is indeed a mystery: if not necessarily a prelude to the glittering replica of Lewis’ Narnia that occasionally appears at the back of Matthew Wright’s book-covered set, certainly an inevitable part of Earth’s ‘shadowlands’ — and, as CS says in his bereavement, the price we must sometimes pay for love.”

    - by Tom Atkins