Birdsong Productions and the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford have teamed up to present William Nicholson’s heart-breaking drama based on CS Lewis’ relationship with the American divorcee Joy Gresham. Familiar to many from both television and movie adaptations, the power of Nicholson’s stage play rests not solely on the chemistry between Lewis and Gresham but also on the effect their tentative romance has on those around them.
Alastair Whatley’s direction catches this keenly, using an ensemble from outset to populate halls and teashops of 1950s Oxford. It’s a defiantly masculine conclave and the arrival of Amanda Ryan’s abrasive, outspoken Joy prompts mistrust or misogyny from the dons. Stephen Boxer’s shy, contemplative Lewis can’t help but be attracted by both Joy’s intellect and independence and a very British courtship ensues, exploring the nature of love and faith through their own acute experiences of pain and suffering. The relationship is wholly convincing and Boxer clarifies Lewis’ Damascene enlightenment with an innate, character-defining honesty.
Despite the weight of these themes, Whatley’s design (in association with Anne-Marie Woodley) and direction has a lightness of touch that helps balance the play. It is characterised by Denis Lill’s playful, adroitly observed old-duffer Major ‘Warnie’ Lewis and Ryan’s cool resilience in the face of Simon Shackleton’s haughty Professor Riley. An earnest Shannon Rewcroft cross-dressing to play Joy’s bookish son Douglas might have worked better had it been a walk-on but Douglas’ role is vital to the play’s perspective and appears to serve the needs of the tour rather than the play. But this is only a minor distraction in an otherwise stylish and moving production.