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Review: Shadowlands (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Hugh Bonneville stars opposite Liz White in this play about CS Lewis

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Liz White, Sally Cheng and Hugh Bonneville in Shadowlands
© Manuel Harlan

It's questionable how many admirers of CS Lewis' enchanting tales of Narnia understand today that the seven books were written as a Christian allegory framed as children's stories.

During his lifetime Lewis was as well known for his devout beliefs as he was for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Magician's Nephew. He was the torch-bearer for conservative Christianity.

Suffering was only part of mankind's existence in these 'Shadowlands', Lewis would lecture his academic audiences at Oxford and Cambridge. Other worlds, other existences, beckoned,

That faith was to be sorely tested towards the end of his life, as the shadows in his own world grew darker. It is these struggles that form the heart of this wonderful new staging of William Nicholson's superb portrayal of the writer's latter years.

Hugh Bonneville plays Clive Staples Lewis – known from the age of four as Jack to friends and family. He is marvellous in the role of the confirmed bachelor: comfortable in the somewhat shabby gentleman's residence shared with his elder brother Warnie, played in glorious understated style by Andrew Havill.

Bonneville's Lewis is gentle, suffering of fools, devout and devoted to academia. Into his life, first through pen letters and then in person, comes change in the form of Mrs Joy Gresham of New York. With eight year-old son Douglas in tow, she invites herself into Lewis's world and, much to his dusty associates' chagrin, eventually into his heart.

Liz White is tremendous in the role of Joy, her quick put-downs reducing Lewis' misogynist associates to quivering uncertainty. Timothy Watson deserves special mention for his portrayal of professor Christopher Riley, the ultimate target of Joy's acerbic wit.

But the shadows hold a painful future for the relationship and as Lewis finds the love he never really sought, agony and suffering stalk the couple's happiness.

But what should be a sad and woeful story is wonderfully funny for so much of the telling. Director Rachel Kavanaugh extracts perfect timing from her cast and tears of laughter flow just as freely as tears of sorrow with the audience (suggestion: do take tissues).

Lighting designer Howard Harrison creates stunning effects with such simple measures, taking the audience from the dark recesses of despair to the sunny uplands of heaven on earth – well, Herefordshire. Designer Peter McKintosh's staging is simple yet effective and, as with all things Narnia, ensures that the most commonplace piece of furniture – in this instance a huge bookcase – hides an enchanting secret: a world beyond the shadows.

Shadowlands concerns the human condition and its relationship with God. Entertaining, funny, deeply touching. Catch it and you will never see the Lion, the Witch nor the Wardrobe in the same light again.