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Shadowlands at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford - review

PUBLISHED: 16:54 24 February 2016 | UPDATED: 16:54 24 February 2016

Amanda Ryan, Shannon Rewcroft, Denis Lill and Stephen Boxer (Photo by Jack Ladenburg)

Amanda Ryan, Shannon Rewcroft, Denis Lill and Stephen Boxer (Photo by Jack Ladenburg)

Archant

Shadowlands is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford until Saturday February 27. www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk; 01483 440000

The name of C. S. Lewis is usually associated with the children’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia, and sometimes with his writings on Christian apologetics which steered a wartime generation. So it is interesting to learn that he was also respected as a novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, theologian, lecturer and Christian apologist. It is not surprising to learn that with that veritable smorgasbord of interests, he had little time left to pursue a love life. In the 50‘s, he lived happily in Oxford, where he held an academic position and shared an apartment with his brother, Major W. H. Lewis, known as Warnie.

C. S. Lewis, nicknamed Jack by his friends, did eventually find love which took him by surprise, and also those around him. In Shadowlands, William Nicholson tells the love story but warns us that this is not a docu-drama.

“I have used parts of their story, not used other parts, and imagined the rest”, he says. “Their love affair was real enough, but they were both intensely private about it. No one knows exactly how and why they fell in love”.

Birdsong Productions presents a very convincing 1950’s Oxford setting. Designers Ann-Marie Woodley and Alastair Whatley set the stage in traditional rooms at the university with heavy wooden panelling and wonderful, huge windows that allow for all sorts of lovely lighting effects from Alex Wardle. Clever use of rotating blackboards and swift stage changes keep the pace moving and actors meander across stage during set changes (a subtle director’s trick worth adopting by many other productions).

Stephen Boxer plays ‘Jack’ with a relaxed charm, bringing just enough humour and affable boffin to the character without ever making him stuffy. Jack is a very likable chap and his relationship with his brother Warnie is endearing to watch. Their direct and sometimes sparse dialogue sums up beautifully how little one needs to say when enjoying true companionship.

In the opening scene, Jack presents a full on debate about God - how can he love us if he allows us pain and suffering? We are hence fore-warned that suffering is most probably just around the corner for Jack but before that, we see his life propelled into chapters of great joy when the glamorous American Joy Gresham enters his life as a great admirer of his work. Played with great ease by Amanda Ryan, Joy is intelligent, witty, energetic and 17 years younger than Jack. It is gently warming to see their fondness for each other grow, and amidst the intellectual debates there are some great comedic lines.

Joy brings her 8 year old son into Jack’s world and for me, this was the only downfall in an otherwise spotless production. The part of young Douglas is played by an actress, and she did well in the circumstances, but I found it so bewildering that there was no male available to play the part that it took away my attention every time Douglas came onto the stage.

But there are many pluses to this production - inventive directing by Alastair Whatley, (including the tricky bit of Joy dying, overcome here as she is wheeled away in a mesmerising shaft of warm light.) Wonderful acting by Simon Shackleton as Jack’s strident mate Christopher. Convincing male banter from the rest of Jack’s Oxford associates. Great music by Mia Soteriou, and a wonderful script from Nicholson with phrases to savour for days after.

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