The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review – a ravishingly designed vision of Narnia
The show runs at The Lowry until 15 January before resuming a UK tour through to May 2022
"Spellbound with wonder" is how director Michael Fentiman recalls feeling as a six-year-old watching the "sheer majesty of the images" in a BBC adaptation of C.S. Lewis' classic story. Its impact on him defines this magnificently designed new touring production, full of visual treats and coup de theatre.
There are also traces of original director Sally Cookson. She paints in micro and macro – how emotions amplify out into world-consuming feelings. There's height and depth to Rae Smith and Tom Paris' designs: internal clock mechanisms form a towering backdrop, while a train is miniaturised as a small model gliding through the air. The clock's circles provide Jack Knowles with rings he lights in blue and orange for elemental ice and fire, winter and spring.
The production also captures the interest in a child's perspective and sense of wonder – the lamppost emerges from a piano. Michael Ahomka-Lindsay's wolf prowls on stilts, a half-suggested form like the skeletal appearance of the electric cello and Max Humphries' puppet designs – the child's imagination filling in the rest. The actors imitate animal movements, such as a stooped, waddling Sam Buttery and Christina Tedders as Mr and Mrs Beaver. More could be done, though, with the showpiece, Aslan: a less animated puppet with a fixed, closed, roar-less mouth.
It's the initial visits back and forth to Narnia which are one of the story's clumsy plot devices. But the production overcomes it by conjuring fresh magic each time. The wardrobe doors burst open with an ensemble who fill the stage carrying white paper parasols and moon-like orbs. Flakes of snow gently tumble down and vast white cloths descend in points like icicles.
With such flair, it doesn't need gimmicks like aerial-suspended parrots which don't evoke the same awe as a robin whose flight is suggested by a dancer's twirls, puppeteering its string like a rippling ribbon. Expendable songs are unevenly distributed, and the pacing becomes more rushed in the second half.
Heavy spectacle can be symptomatic of performances lacking the same three-dimensionality. Here, that's Samantha Womack's White Witch. Flat rather than fearsome, her movement's as stiff as the ice wand she awkwardly points. Going through the motions of a thawed-out villain, rather than committing to the character, she lacks the stage presence to make climactic moments like the stone table sacrifice or final battle pay off.
The Pevensie children, however, are all endearingly played. When Johnson Willis' wonderfully sage, avuncular professor tells them their names' etymology, his clues foretell the roles they'll take. Lucy's, for example, denotes light, and Karise Yansen's round, cherubic face appears a glowing globe. But from the start, their subtly differentiated voices convey their identities. Robyn Sinclair's has an authoritative, assertive edge as wise sister, Susan. As elder brother Edmund, Shaka Kalokoh's deeper, gruffer pitch suggests his big-headed confidence that sees him enchanted by the Witch into betraying his siblings.
Fentiman keeps their experience central through constant flux following how they were uprooted when fleeing their homes. Suitcases recur in transitions, while Shannelle Fergus choreographs the disruption with a destabilised flow to the ensemble's movement, often pausing to then reverse a sequence. The war trickles through: the Witch's army share the same helmets and goggles as the British soldiers, and Aslan's resistance the same clipped tones.
It's a world and production filled with clever details like these, so ravishingly accomplished, that make you want to see this Christmas crowd-pleasing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe again, again and again.