CS Lewis’s beloved tale of four wartime evacuees who – thanks to a magic wardrobe – find themselves in a land of fauns and talking animals, has been turned into an IMAX-style theatrical rollercoaster ride, staged in a huge, purpose-built tent with a hi-tech domed interior akin to something from a sci-fi film.
The second, chronologically, of CS Lewis’s tales of Narnia is one of the best children’s books of all time. But its mix of the touchingly personal and the sweepingly epic makes it hard to adapt. Even the much-loved ’80s BBC TV version looks ever-creakier with age.
Rupert Goold’s adaptation touches briefly on the children’s abandonment issues and the parallels between war-torn Britain and the icy tyranny of the White Witch’s reign. But it is soon engulfed by a tide of high-wire acrobatics, dancing, animated projections and fairly forgettable songs.
Some said ‘Peter Pan’, Threesixty’s previous show in Kensington Gardens, put spectacle above story. This is a problem here, too. Striking design and some stunning special effects can’t compensate for what is often a confusing tour of Lewis’s carefully crafted world. If you don’t know the plot, you might struggle to keep up.
The younger actors are suitably plucky as the Pevensie children; Forbes Masson is a snivelling yet ultimately noble Mr Tumnus; and Paul Barnhill and Sophie-Louise Dann are fun as a squabbling Mr and Mrs Beaver. But the star of the show is the distinctly God-like Aslan.
When Aslan turns up, so does the magic. Max Humphries’ ‘War Horse’-style puppet (voiced with gravelly gravitas by David Suchet) is an astonishing creation, wildly beautiful and textured like bark. When this lion-shaped embodiment of the forest bounds into life, you forget there are people operating him.
His sacrifice by Sally Dexter’s mad-eyed White Witch on the stone table – lit blood-red and choreographed like a scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ – will have adults as well as children on the edge of their seats. Kids will be enthralled by the show’s energy and flair. But as an even bigger kid who used to spend hours in his parents’ wardrobe waiting for Narnia to appear behind the skirts and trousers, I missed the book’s joyful sense of anticipation, wonder and hope.
First published by Time Out