Strongly recalling visits to London’s National Theatre (another prominent example of 1970s brutalism architecture), it appears the Gillian Lynne Theatre in Covent Garden also mastered an auditorium without bad seats. For the price we paid, we are more than happy with our seats in the first row of the balcony to the right, despite the apparent restricted view: Even the cosy balustrade invites to lean on its soft, red-purply fabric. From up here we can hardly see our friends sitting somewhere underneath us who made use of the ticket offers during Kids Theatre Week where a child can go for free with every paying adult. By the time I decided to join them for the evening, their block of seats was sold out, but there is still enough time to meet before and after the show, during the interval and to discuss scare levels, film adaptations and the oddity of families bringing whole sushi sets in to consume during the performance.
While we find our seats, Vera Lynn anthems are played on a piano. Much more magical highlights are the folk tunes when a string quartet and an accordion join, while a clarinet will illustrate fighting scenes acoustically. Some songs performed are truly magical, others less.
The play starts strongly with an engaging train journey when a bunch of children are sent from the 1940s bombings to strangers in a remote estate in Scotland: With their host, an elderly professor, they have thriving discussions on the powers, wonders and eventualities of space, time and the imagination. These are strong moments on stage and it’s truly refreshing to see one of the girls wearing glasses all the way through the show, without her having to be the geeky bookworm. Then, one of them finds a portal to a magical kingdom with speaking animals, and the others follow her to otherworldly adventures.
A lot has probably been written over the decades about C.S. Lewis’ likely intention to write about overcoming fear with escapism. The story runs too far towards a war in an imaginative land where all four children are quickly fighting masters in armour. One stop at Father Christmas and his lederhosen wearing reindeers, self-sacrifice by the reigning king, his reappearance, a battle against the evil witch… and all four children are crowned kings and queens themselves.
Bringers of death in carrion skull are daringly dark, led by the hyaenic menace of a werewolf on prosthetic crutches. But lackeys on leads in gasmasks and fishnets for the blond enemy of Narnia – has someone just sneaked in a personal kink? Not learning about the witch’s motives is another weak point, and since Wicked and Harry Potter young audiences have demanded more insights in the baddies’ intentions. Against her fight porcupines in trench hats and beavers with victory rolls, all praising the value of comradery. Central European view alert: Especially in these times, don’t make war memorials fun, collectables or pop culture. But imaginative, lush costumes and props are paraded without doubt, and the puppetry (Schroedinger the cat is my favourite) masterfully performed. Narnia’s king, the lion Aslan, whose technicolour profile already decorates London’s busses, is accompanied by three puppeteers alone and voiced by a constant companion resembling (surely a nod to C.S. Lewis’ writing club the Inklings of which also Professor Tolkien was part of) Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield.
Admittedly, Narnia’s not so hidden embedment of the messiah myth is still beyond me. Others celebrate it: Standing ovations and children achieving with enthusiastic shouts of “bravo” a little encore. We leave the theatre at Drury Lane at a child-friendly 9.30pm. Disney’s Frozen around the corner also started at 7pm and we have seen plenty of mini-Elsas and Annas passing us grandly. I cannot wait to have drink at the Nell Gwynne now, it’s a Friday night in the West End after all.
*** out of 5 starts
Directed by Mike Fentimen based on the original production by Sally Cookson which adapted C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (first published in 1950). Playing until 8 January 2023.
We paid £15 for each seat (Circle A14 and A15) through LW Theatres in advance online.