How a fiesty wife saved the Narnia bore: PATRICK MARMION says Hugh Bonneville is loveably bashful on stage in Shadowlands
Shadowlands (Festival Theatre, Chichester)
Verdict: Bonneville is loveably bashful
Dying of cancer in a hospital bed, C.S. Lewis’s American wife struggles to tell him: ‘I love you.’ His gauche, spluttering response is: ‘Er, better now!?’ If I was her, I’d have torn off my intravenous drip and decked him.
But it’s a measure of Hugh Bonneville’s charisma in William Nicholson’s sweetly sentimental play about the Narnia author’s late life romance that the line actually gets a laugh. His gaffe is to be construed as loveable English reticence.
Nicholson’s 1985 play is best known from the 1993 film with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and aims to be quite serious by tackling big questions about God and suffering.
William Nicholson’s sweetly sentimental play tracks the Narnia author CS Lewis’s late life
The action is framed by excerpts from a lecture given by Lewis, who worked as a Professor of English at Oxford University. He argues that joy and pain are inextricably linked. Nicholson’s play puts Lewis’s theory to the test by having the cagey bachelor fall in love with an American fan, Joy Gresham (Liz White), and then nurse her through her terminal disease (although he hardly gets his hands dirty).
The heart of the play lies in the character of Joy herself: a quick-witted writer with rapier put-downs for the stuffy Oxford dons who surround Lewis like pompous courtiers.
Typical of them is Timothy Watson as Professor Christopher Riley (a character loosely based on J.R.R. Tolkien). He is a gorgeously horrible creature and a witheringly effete misogynist whose anti-American sneers lead him to waspishly inquire if Lewis’s ‘children’s books’ had to be translated into American English.
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White deftly scythes him down by asking ‘are you being offensive . . . or merely stupid?’
But the charming thing about White’s performance is that she keeps such thrusts short and sharp, remaining elegant and luminous amid the fusty academics.
Without her glow, Bonneville’s C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis would be little more than a dusty bore. She lends him a kind of street-cred by endorsing the warmth, decency and wry humour that lurk beneath his tweedy suit.
Thanks to her, we’re able to forgive a character who would otherwise have to be condemned as an emotional dimwit; a man who took years to summon the courage to utter those three simple words ‘I love you’.
It helps, too, of course that Bonneville is bashful, cuddly —and better looking than his jowly historical counterpart.
Andrew Havill gallantly covers the more curmudgeonly qualities as C.S.’s live-in brother Major W.H., expressing light scepticism at his marriage to Joy but gamely offering to move out.
W.H. also highlights my big problem with a play that largely sidelines the much greater loss suffered by Joy’s nine-year-old son (a plucky young Eddie Martin the night I saw it).
The play treats him as merely an echo of Lewis’s pain at losing his own mother at the same age. Nicholson should surely have made more of his suffering.
Rachel Kavanaugh’s slick production neatly sidesteps this omission and instead focuses on Lewis’s spiritual longings and romantic agonies, which eventually come to a head over sherry at Joy’s wake.
Peter McKintosh’s set likewise evokes sleepy Oxford academe effectively, with a twinkling vision of snow-covered Narnia beyond an edifice of oak shelves filled with antiquarian books.
And, crucially, the denouement between Bonneville and White, his emotional redeemer, will bring tears to your eyes.
The suns refuse to shine
A Thousand Splendid Suns (Birmingham Rep)
Verdict: Not so splendid
Hopes were high for this adaptation of the sequel to Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner.
A hit in its own right, A Thousand Splendid Suns attempts to lift the veil on the appalling suffering of Afghan women under the Taliban. Sadly, Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation turns it into hokey melodrama.
The story follows two women brutalised by the Afghan regime and the ghastly husband they share. He announces himself as a saviour by marrying Laila, 15, when her parents are killed by a bomb.
A Thousand Splendid Suns attempts to lift the veil on the appalling suffering of Afghan women under the Taliban
This is much to the chagrin of his existing wife, Mariam, but the women eventually bond over Laila’s baby daughter and their loathing of their oafish husband. Rani Sarma’s stage adaptation is a psychologically crude summary of the novel, missing the texture and intimacy of the women’s daily life.
Director Roxana Silbert’s production feels like a low-budget Bollywood film with the fun, song and dance taken out. Perhaps she wanted to capture some of the uplifting qualities of the story in which Laila longs to be reunited with her one-legged childhood playmate, Tariq.
But with a stage design of moulded fibreglass and hardboard cut-out clouds it looks like Star Trek, the early years.
Sujaya Dasgupta is feisty and sometimes radiant as Laila, but her character is a victim of circumstance. At least Amina Zia as Mariam rises to a grimly ennobling end.
Pal Aron has a dreadful role as the vain, sleazy, violent misogynistic husband Rasheed. He may be true to life but it doesn’t make him (or the play) any more edifying.
There are wonderful snatches of Afghani raga music along the way. If only the production itself could have equalled the sophistication of that music, and Hosseini’s book.
Jude’s a long way from Hardy country
Jude (Hampstead Theatre, London)
Verdict: Jude the obscure
BY GILES SMITH
Immigration, elitism, deep state machinations, Greek tragedy, British farming post-Brexit . . . these are merely some of the themes wedged into Jude, a new play by Howard Brenton, which perhaps ends just before it can offer some thoughts on kitchen sinks.
Brenton wrote this piece after a television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure failed to happen. But don’t expect a costume drama, nor (‘God forbid,’ says Brenton in the programme) an update — just an attempt to ‘tell a simple story as truthfully as you can’.
That story: a Portsmouth classics teacher agrees to give A-level tuition to her cleaner, a teenage Syrian refugee called Judith — but then quits on her for a new job.
Furious, and spitting lines from Homer in the original Greek, Judith has a child with a criminal Hampshire pig farmer, and then deserts them to batter at Oxford’s doors and have sex with her cousin who is under observation by anti-terrorism officers.
In Jude a Portsmouth classics teacher agrees to give A-level tuition to her cleaner, a teenage Syrian refugee called Judith
And periodically Euripides enters through the back door in a face-mask and a dark robe to speak either to, or through, Judith, depending on how you see it.
Simple? Truthful? How much simplicity and truthfulness can a single play take?
Brenton nods gently to Hardy in the fictional Christminster College and, less gently, in the bloody killing of a pig just before the interval.
As for the unlikelihood of the plot, is that also a nod to Hardy, or a problem with the play?
Isabella Nefar gives pugnacious life to Judith, who likes to celebrate the moment of orgasm by flinging a vodka bottle across the room. That definitely wasn’t in the novel. Nor were Caroline Loncq’s lubricious professor, nor Anna Savva’s hard- gardening Syrian aunt, both of whom seem to have arrived from an Alan Ayckbourn farce clutching an urgent message to lighten the tone.
Edward Hall, in his last production after a transformative decade as Hampstead Theatre’s artistic director, directs with as much clarity as he can muster.
And Ashley Martin-Davis’s bare stage doesn’t exactly promise a snow scene, but makes clever use of trapdoors to give us one. No kitchen sink, though. An oversight.
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