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Shadowlands – ★★★★
By William Nicholson
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre
performance date: 02 May 2019
venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester

Photo: Manuel Harlan


Never let it be said, or even hinted at, that Hugh Bonneville is a lightweight actor. As we saw two years ago in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of The Enemy of the People, he can do serious stuff to the manner born. His performance as CS Lewis is variously warm, moving, incisive, occasionally funny and beautifully judged – and, under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction, it makes for a pretty special piece of theatre.

William Nicholson’s play tells the story of the unlikely relationship and marriage between CS Lewis – academic, theologically inclined specialist in mediaeval literature, conservative Christian and children’s novelist – and American divorcee, Joy Gresham. The play, originally written for TV and then adapted for screen (1993) and stage, is a powerful depiction of bereavement and loss as Lewis grieves first for his mother and now for his wife with whom he has just three years before cancer takes her. The sound of Bonneville consumed with despair and weeping, hugged by his young stepson (Eddie Martin on press night – good) will haunt me for quite a while.

Liz White gives us a feisty, sassy, funny, forthright Joy and you can see why Lewis eventually falls for her although I was unconvinced by her American accent. And there are strong support performances from Andrew Havill as Lewis’s stalwart, supportive, reliable brother Warnie and from Timothy Watson as the sneering, sceptical academic friend who eventually thaws a little in sympathy. All of them deliver the funnier, leavening, put downs and witty bits of self-deprecation with rapier-skill. These characters are highly educated people who can do charismatic things with words and Nicholson’s script makes the most of that.

Peter McKintosh’s set is simply lovely. There’s a big book lined back screen to suggest Lewis’s study or the college common room and sheer magic when it parts for a few moments to reveal the soft silvery tree of Narnia – in which the child, Douglas Gresham, is imaginatively lost. The downstage lamp post quietly tells a story too.

Bravo, Chichester Festival Theatre. Another fine production.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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