Sally Cookson, more than most directors, is able to capture that moment of magic when a child opens a book for the first time and is enchanted by the world she finds within its pages. She takes that sense of wonder and translates it to the stage.
Her adaptation of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe draws out all the elements of the novel that captivate young readers and makes grown ups remember what it felt like to accompany Lucy through those wardrobe doors.
She conveys the disruption the Pevensie children feel about being evacuated from their home and separated from their parents, and evokes the sense of adventure that Cora Kirk’s Lucy feels when she first enters Narnia.
Cookson’s production for West Yorkshire Playhouse, made in conjunction with Marianne Elliott’s new company, Elliot and Harper, is one of size. It fills the vast Quarry Theatre. War Horse designer Rae Smith’s set consists of a flat black stone fissured with light. Clouds of circular paper lampshades, of the kind that have furnished student bedrooms since time immemorial, track the changing of the seasons, from endless winter to spring and, finally, summer. Winter in Narnia is evoked through a series of white sheets which pool on the floor and from which the White Witch’s minions dangle.
Cookson also understands that a young audience does not need to be treated with cotton gloves, far from it. There are exhilarating, stage-filling battle scenes in which the four sons of Adam and daughters of eve face down an army of evil, beaky shadow creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in The Dark Crystal. The first half closes with a spectacular moment in which Carla Mendonca as the White Witch, with her menacing icicle talons, towers over the theatre.
The book’s Christian imagery is downplayed in favour of something wilder in spirit and, at times, a little trippy. John Leader’s Edmund engages in a delirious Turkish delight dance sequence and Narnia in summertime turns out to have a surprisingly psychedelic quality.
There are moments too when the pacing sags. And, while Aslan in puppet form is quite something to behold (Iain Johnstone in a magnificent fur coat gives him body and voice), his role in both the narrative and the Narnia mythology is slightly undermined here. His sacrifice, and Lucy and Susan’s grief, doesn’t have as much emotional impact as it might.
Benji Bower’s music is also a bit muddy and the production could benefit from being tighter and shorter, but it remains a joyous and uplifting experience and contains moments when Cookson makes you briefly believe people are capable of flight even when their feet are firmly on the ground.