Much better than you’d expect from a thumbnail description – repressed Oxford don falls in love with feisty American poet; she dies, he questions the nature of belief – William Nicholson’s Shadowlands has stood the test of time as an unlikely love story for over 20 years.

First it was a television play with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, then a stage hit with Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Lapotaire and finally a very good film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Although Richard Attenborough’s movie successfully opened out the evocative Oxford city and university settings of the 1950s, 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 C S Lewis, the intellectual moralist, Christian and writer of the Narnia books, is something of a revelation, ditching his trademark rugged grandeur for a shifty, stuttering uncertainty in his relationship with both God and women. Playing older than he usually appears – slightly stooping, no more ginger hair (his thatch is greying), hands thrust ludicrously into jacket pockets – Dance presents a memorable picture of a man knocked sideways by an experience he had never envisaged.

The catalyst is Janie Dee’s forceful Joy Gresham, formerly a Communist, unalterably Jewish, with a young son Douglas in tow (I sat just behind the real-life Douglas Gresham at the first night, a moving experience in itself) and someone who dispels the fustian common room atmosphere like a blow torch.

One of Lewis’ fellow dons is unwise enough to suggest to Joy that men have intellects, women have souls: “Are you being offensive or merely stupid?” Matthew Wright’s efficient design of towering library shelves and silhouetted café tables splits open to reveal the magical forest of Narnia and the romantic voyage of the childhood spirituality Lewis knew was the province of all God’s creatures.

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 as Lewis’ military brother “Warnie,” who demonstrates how most of us teeter nervously on the brink of emotional cataclysm. I’d forgotten, too, how touching is the contrast of the two marriage services.

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. You do cringe a bit, though, when Joy’s bone cancer suddenly hits in for a bit of physical pain at the end of the first act. Still, as we all know, disease is no respecter of decorum, any more than is love.

- Michael Coveney