Although there is an element of circus in the adaptation by Rupert Goold and his co-director Michael Fentiman – stilts, flying, puppetry, bungee jumps and woodland animals – the show, designed by Tom Scutt, avoids all Cirque du Soleil aesthetics of rippling silk.
There’s a gnarled and twisted darkness about the adventures on the other side of the wardrobe, where Sally Dexter’s tremendous White Witch – part jinn, part giantess, but also a cackling vamp – rules the roost in a frozen waste where it is always winter but never Christmas.
It’s a very clever trick, but you do feel that the four children evacuated from wartime London are discovering a strange and unknown land, not the stuff of nursery legend or their own fairy tales. Another universe, in fact, with comforting reference points such as Brian Protheroe’s unemployed Santa Claus, the talking robin (manipulated at the end of a thin stick) and the false security of Turkish delight.
Inquisitive Lucy (Rebecca Benson) is first through the handsome wooden wardrobe, which rises through a trap in the centre of the stage and plonks her first of all in the big red cave of the friendly faun, Mr Tumnus (Forbes Masson).
The cave is projected right around our heads on a giant inverted saucer that changes, as in a magical planetarium, into the ice-bound forests of Narnia, with snowfall and jagged tree trunks. These effects are less spectacular than the CGI videos in Peter Pan, but more human-scale, in keeping with the comparative intimacy of a 12 metre diameter stage and a shallow auditorium of 1500 wrap-around seats.
Lucy’s siblings are not really characterised as they are in the book, but Carly Bawden’s Susan, Philip Labey’s Peter and Jonny Weldon’s more impetuous Edmund are lively and eager. They have more eccentric companionship from Mr and Mrs Beaver (Paul Barnhill and Sophie-Louise Dann), who belt out some extraordinary songs by Adam Cork that are weird, dissonant and curiously magical, too.
The animal costumes aren’t furry as in a pantomime, but made of skins and rough material, bits of stick and mud. And from the moment we hear that Aslan is on the move, the die is cast for showdown and show-time; the lion king is a mobile thawing machine, a giant rib cage with wooden haunches and a huge horse-like head with sad eyes, inhabited by two puppeteers while a third moves his mighty mane.
Shades of War Horse, definitely, but Steve Tiplady’s puppetry and Georgina Lamb’s choreography contrive a most wonderful new friendly and unforgettable creature, who is “voiced” in rich and velvety tones by David Suchet, no less. The flight of the children on his back is thrilling, as are the battles, the ring of fire and the surprise resurrection to complete the perfect story.