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Theatre Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ****

Michael Cox reviews a production that's 'tremendous throughout'.

The Royal Lyceum’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is quite clear from the outset—this is no holiday panto. What it is, instead, is a very solid theatrical retelling of CS Lewis’ seminal book, told through brisk pacing, songs and theatrical flare. No heroes to cheer or villains to sneer at here; the heroes have a gallant air while the villain is genuinely frightening. And while it is a family show, it is not afraid of eliciting a few scares.

For those not in the know, the story follows four siblings—oldest Peter (James Rottger), nurturing Susan (Charlotte Miranda Smith), troublemaker Edmund (Cristian Ortega) and curiously adventurous Lucy (Claire-Marie Seddon)—who have been evacuated during WWII into a country estate, presided over by a mysterious professor (Ben Onwukwe). While playing in the large estate, Lucy discovers a large wardrobe that acts as a portal to a new realm: Narnia.

Narnia is a magical place filled with mythical creatures. It has also been enchanted by the evil White Witch (Pauline Knowles—thrillingly evil throughout), who has made it perpetual winter, but without Christmas, and rules through a campaign of fear. One by one the children find themselves in Narnia and discover that they might be the prophesised saviours of the land, if only they can get the help of the noble lion Aslan (also Onwukwe), whose return might mark the end of the dreaded witch.

Andrew Panton has directed a terrific production, one that feels like a holiday show without pandering to its audience, and it is tremendous throughout. Designer Becky Minto and lighting designer Simon Wilkinson have created a design that is beautiful to behold and epic in scale, and the songs by Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour are both playful yet functional in moving the plot along.

But the production’s greatest aspect is its ensemble. Rottger, Smith, Ortega and Seedon are excellent as the four children, each believable both in their respective roles and as a family unit, and Onwukwe is great as the slightly batty professor and the pivotal Aslan. The supporting players, who take on multiple roles, are also great fun and present some of the best characters, including Ewan Donald’s delightfully innocent Mr Tumnus, Lewis Howden’s cheeky Driver and John Kielty and Gail Watson as the charming couple of Mr and Mrs Beaver.

But the standout is Pauline Knowles, whose White Witch is a true force to be reckoned with. She’s cunning and has an aura of dread that follows her throughout. By playing it straight, Knowles raises the stakes to believably intense levels, giving the whole production far greater gravity than expected.

Those looking for a mindless piece of fluff will find little to enjoy here. However, those looking for true theatricality need look no further: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t just a great production but manages to cap the Lyceum’s rather remarkable 50th year in style.

At the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until January 3, 2016.

Tags: theatre

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