It feels awful to dump on Michael Fentiman’s staging of CS Lewis’s beloved Narnia fantasy, but it’s ponderously slow and woefully short on magic. Samantha Womack is an icy, one-note witch while the giant puppet of Aslan the lion comprises only a head, musclebound front legs, and a jinking tail. It looks like a roadrunner on ‘roids. The third-billed wardrobe, however, is solidly impressive.
This wintry story, with its unsubtle Christian subtext and a guest appearance by Santa Claus, feels wildly out of place in midsummer, a week after the UK almost caught fire. And the low-key charms of Fentiman’s production, with its folksy songs and winsome steampunk animals, evaporate in a 1,024-seat West End theatre.
It’s not particularly the fault of the director or his cast and creative team, who are working from an original adaptation by Sally Cookson. This is a modest touring show that’s been dragooned into town as a family-friendly holiday stopgap. It’s here to keep the recently – and expensively - refurbished Gillian Lynne Theatre warm after the brutal early closure of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, and before the arrival in January of the National Theatre production of The Lehman Trilogy, trailing paths of glory from Broadway. But without being too much of a metropolitan ponce about it, we’re used to better.
The production’s shortcomings enable us to take a fresh squint at a cultural totem, however. Philip Pullman hates the “innate cultural conservatism” of the Narnia saga and wrote His Dark Materials partly as a rebuke. Undoubtedly, Lewis’s books stem from an innately sexist, racist and imperial mindset, and their enduring popularity has contributed to the post-Second World War vision of British exceptionalism.
Here, at least, the portrait of plucky evacuees assuming control of a foreign land is slightly softened by casting black actors as the four Pevensie children. They, Womack’s witch, and Chris Jared as the cult-leaderish human embodiment of Aslan, don’t display much in the way of character, however. They all speak with an incantatory solemnity to emphasise that we’re in a dream world, albeit one where serious things like death and resurrection happen.
By contrast, the Narnia creatures created by the ensemble of actor-musicians are a melting pot of accents, costumes and cultural references. Santa’s reindeer wear Lederhosen and the witch’s wolf lieutenant Maugrim (Emmanuel Ogunjinmi) looks like he’s loped in from a fetish club. But most of the mammals sport tweed, goggles and a stringed instrument.
There are a couple of half-hearted ‘disappearance’ illusions. The witch, two Pevensies, and a couple of other actors are briefly hoisted aloft on wires to fly aimlessly around before being sheepishly returned to earth. I’d forgotten how late Aslan arrives in the story and how ineffectual he is, how the narrative relies on endless random revelation rather than coherence. The Narnia tales were as much a part of my childhood as Bernard Cribbins, whose death was announced yesterday: ultimately, he stood the test of time better.
Gillian Lynne Theatre, until 8 Jan; buy tickets here