Shadowlands, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Starting a play with a university lecture on theology is never going to be the most scintillating of openers for a commercial production. That William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands not only survives from the density of its opening scene but thrives upon it, returning to the lecture’s themes and suffusing them throughout the rest of its duration, is near magical.

Of course, a good deal of this down to the protagonist giving the talk, Clive Staples Lewis – known as C.S. Lewis to his legion of fans of his Narnia books, and as Jack to his friends and family. Lewis’s faith, and his ability to articulate his own approach with a clarity that is affecting to those of the same faith, different or none, is the foundation of this true-life tale of the way he found his faith tested. A middle-aged bachelor, Lewis found love late in life with American divorcée Joy Gresham. Initially marrying her in secret purely so she could stay in the UK, her subsequent illness and cancer diagnosis forced him to admit his feelings.

Stephen Boxer’s Jack is a gentle, mildly humorous man who seems content in his life of Oxford academia, sharing a house with his brother and answering correspondence from fans. When that correspondence brings him into contact with Joy (Amanda Ryan), the pair’s discussions are initially stilted and hesitant. Boxer and Ryan are able to convey the growing sense of affection between the pair, while Shannon Rewcroft, playing Joy’s young son Douglas, similarly portrays the Narnia fan who is coming to accept the books’ author as a father figure with great sensitivity.

Around them, a bevy of character actors provide effective backup. Most notable of these is Denis Lill as Warnie, Jack’s brother, while Simon Shackleton leads the group of Oxford dons who spar verbally with Jack and look down upon his blossoming relationship with Joy.

An interesting first act sets up events with a slow-paced rigour that puts all the pieces in place for a truly heart-wrenching Act II. A motif introduced from the Narnia prequel The Magician’s Nephew, of a boy who uses a magic apple to heal his sick mother, is woven into the real life story of Joy’s brief remission to magical effect, tying the various strands together.

And as Jack returns to his lecture on God, and his place in a world of pain and suffering, we see how his faith allows him to cope with Joy’s terminal illness, but also how that same illness tests his faith. This is not a polemical piece, nor is it a lecture or sermon, although there are elements of those: instead, a warm rendition of two souls, perfectly matched, meeting late in life and then struggling to deal with one partner’s untimely departure. Nicholson’s script deftly balances melancholy with dry wit, to provide an ultimately uplifting period piece that continues C.S. Lewis’s legacy of incorporating theological philosophy within very human entertainment.

Runs until July 23 in Aylesbury, and on tour

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