William Nicholson’s 1989 play, Shadowlands, opens with a lecture on love, pain and suffering. The half-buried joke is that this is precisely what Nicholson’s own piece of writing is about. Based on the true story of CS Lewis’ relationship with Joy Gresham, it’s a love story in which the emotional constipation of stiff, upper-class Englishness is undone by flamboyant, passionate Americanism.
Lewis (Hugh Bonneville) first meets Joy Gresham (Liz White) via a letter she sends expressing her admiration for his work. A vibrant correspondence starts up and, when she comes on holiday to Britain, they meet for tea in Oxford. After she returns to the US to find her husband having an affair, she comes back to the city, newly divorced and ready to start afresh with her young son, Douglas (Eddie Martin).
Nicholson’s version of events foregrounds the thrill both characters get from intellectually challenging each other and the possibilities of openness provided by initially writing, rather than meeting in person. News of another unlikely relationship forming between an uptight English man and a very modern American – Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson – is also casually mentioned.
But the huge dilemma the real Lewis faced in trying to reconcile his religious practices with his desire to wed a divorced woman is very much downplayed. So, while his close circle of boorish dons despise Gresham (and, for that matter, all women), and there are brief mentions of unidentified people gossiping, the stakes for forming the relationship are notably lowered.
In Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, Bonneville is predictably skilled at capturing Lewis’ exceptionally awkward Britishness. He creates the perfect image of a grown man whose rigid dedication to protocol is a thinly-worn mask concealing the pains of a little boy left without a mother.
Opposite him, White offers an unbridled generosity of spirit. There’s a freedom to all of her movements as she strides around the space in wide-legged slacks, waistcoats and shirts. Her wardrobe appropriates traditional menswear with the same ease as she demonstrates slicing through the real-life donnish misogyny clothed in it.
A recurrent theme of their crackling exchanges is the tension between masculine reason and logic, versus feminine passion and poetry. Kavanaugh’s staging – with its exquisitely detailed set design by Peter McKintosh polished to a gleaming finish and with neat allusions to Narnia threaded in – is, logically speaking, great. But it often struggles to convey the emotion behind Lewis and Gresham’s love. We get more glimpses of it post-interval, but as with Lewis’ 11th-hour declaration of his feelings, you can’t help regretting that it didn’t come sooner.