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Shadowlands at Chichester

Hugh Bonneville and Liz White star in the latest performance of the bittersweet romance between Narnia author C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham.

It’s a tale often told – most popularly perhaps, in Four Weddings and Funeral – the uninhibited American woman disarming the reserved Englishman. In the case of Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis, it happened in real life.

Hugh Bonneville and Liz White. Photo Manuel Harlan.

Their unlikely romance, late in the life of the Narnia Chronicles author and rudely interupted by serious illness, is the subject of Shadowlands, on at the Chichester Festival Theatre until Sat 25 May with Hugh Bonneville as C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis and Liz White as Joy.

The award-winning stage adaptation is written by Sussex’s own William Nicholson, who also penned the screenplay for the 1993 film that starred Anthony Hopkins.

Photo Manuel Harlan

Repressed but kind is a familiar role for Bonneville who most will know best from Downton Abbey -though, for me, he’ll always be the hapless Ian Fletcher in the brilliant mockumentaries Twenty Twelve and W1A. Lewis is hardly a stretch, the role could have been written for him, and it’s easy to warm to his take on the character, awkward and charming from the off, progressing through an awakening to convincing on-stage sobbing.

A neighbour I was chatting with at the interval felt he was too expansive too early and preferred the rigid brother, Warnie, who was played beautifully by Andrew Havill. It’s true that it is all the more moving when his brittle jokes give way to tenderness in the later scenes.

Andrew Havill as Warnie. Photo Manuel Harlan

I loved Liz White as WPC Annie Cartwright in Life on Mars and here she is an entirely opposite character – strident, somewhat pushy, and comfortable in her own skin, played almost masculine in the way she moves and certainly in the way she espouses opinions in a stuffy 1950s academic setting that might as well have been the 1900s.

Photo Manuel Harlan

To a Britsh ear at least, she gets away with a broad New York accent as, impressively, does young Eddie Martin who playing her son Douglas on the night I attended.

Because most of the action takes place in Oxford University or the house Jack and his brother share, keeping the staging interesting presents a challenge. The production carries it off well, with relatively short scenes and subtle but effective prop shifts. Though it’s worth noting that the many seated scenes are likely to work less well from all angles of the theatre than a production with greater movement.

Photo Manuel Harlan

There’s a lovely fantasy element, used sparingly, with a mirrored back wall opening to reveal a Narnia-like forest in response to Douglas’s immersion in Jack’s books. A lampost on stage throughout also hints at that famous other world.

Shadowlands is undoubtedly a weepie, in fact there were few points in the second half when I didn’t have tears rolling down my cheeks, yet surprisingly it is also a play full of belly laughs that echo round the huge auditorium. Jack’s colleagues are less than enamoured by his new soulmate and the culture clash plus, in one instance, a battle of the sexes, lead to plenty of pithy observations.

Photo Manuel Harlan

The title Shadowlands refers to a belief C.S. Lewis put forward that our mortal world is nothing but shadows on the edge of eternal life. Besides being a celebrated children’s author and academic, he was an evangelist (even the Narnia books are Christian allegories) and the play, based on his work A Grief Observed, takes up the theme of how his faith was cruelly tested.

The play cleverly opens with a lecture on the relationship between pain and love which provides laughs and food for thought from the outset, setting the tone for the entire polished production.


 Shadowlands is at Chichester Festival Theatre until Sat 25 May. Tickets are from £10.

All photos by Manuel Harlan. 

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