Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Bridge Theatre)
Sally Cookson's adaptation of the hit novel arrives in London
In a deft Christmas coup, the Bridge Theatre alongside producers Elliott and Harper has transferred Sally Cookson's 2017 adaptation of C S Lewis' much-loved children's tale to London, complete with technicolor design, earnest knitwear and lashings of festive cheer.
The show was a sure-fire hit when it first opened in Leeds, and Cookson's customary whimsical tone, musical accompaniment and physical prowess have all survived the journey south in this newly staged production.
The plot is easily followable, even for the youngest audience members present – four children evacuated during the Second World War find themselves in a mysterious professor's creaky and musty abode. Things take a turn for the quirky when they discover a whole other kingdom housed at the back of the titular wardrobe, full of talking animals and mystical beasts, yet cursed to centuries of winter by the evil White Witch.
There are some fine performances peppered throughout Cookson's production – John Leader, retaining his Midlands twang, makes evacuee child Edmund simultaneously likeable and flawed in the way only a young teen could be, while Wil Johnson's Aslan is sage yet never stern, delivering some of the show's best scenes alongside an army of accomplished puppeteers and an effervescent Keziah Joseph as Lucy Pevensie. A musical number featuring Santa Claus is a runaway highlight.
But much like Cookson's last family production to be revived in London, the show takes too long to get into gear, with a meandering first act full of painfully unnecessary moments (a blues-y ballad about Turkish Delight comes to mind). A large chunk of the plot therefore ends up being crammed into a much swifter second act. For all her acting prowess, Laura Elphinstone is fay, yet sadly far from fearsome as the White Witch, meaning the stakes never feel all that high.
In terms of ticking the festive theatre trip box, there's more than enough to keep the whole family happy in this fabulous production – designer Rae Smith has a ball with giant foam flowers, huge silky sheets and a climactic end to the first act.
After being staged in the round in Leeds, it seems a shame that the same configuration isn't used in the versatile Bridge space – the end-on aspect (the show will reportedly be embarking on a tour in 2020, which may explain the more conventional approach) is distancing rather than immersive. It's hard to shake the feeling that, much like the land of Narnia as the Pevensies arrive, this is a production that takes a while to warm up and only comes into full bloom after a long wait.