Written by William Nicholson, Shadowlands began life as a television play that was first shown in 1985. It was later adapted for the stage, premiering in the West End in 1989 and then Broadway in 1990. A third version was released in 1993 as a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Shadowlands continues to be hugely popular and the recent revival by Chichester Festival Theatre, with Hugh Bonneville in the lead role, received five star reviews. Now it’s the turn of Lyndhurst Drama & Musical Society to stage this exceptional play at the delightful Vernon Theatre in Lyndhurst.
The play is an intensely personal and moving biographical drama about the relationship between Oxford don and author CS Lewis (known as ‘Jack’) and Joy Gresham (née Davidman), an award winning American poet of Jewish background. In Britain, Lewis has become a household name for writing the much loved children’s stories of The Chronicles of Narnia, though he is also renowned for writing a large number of philosophical works about his Christian beliefs. In 1952 he met Gresham as a result of corresponding with her over his theological writings. Initially, Lewis regarded Gresham as an agreeable intellectual companion, but in time they became close friends and eventually married each other, twice. The first time as a marriage of convenience – to help Gresham retain UK residency; followed by a later Christian marriage, when she succumbed to terminal bone cancer. The play follows their emotional journey and the effect this had on Lewis, his faith and on the other people in his life.
The play begins with ‘Jack’ Lewis, standing centre stage in front of closed stage curtains addressing the audience as if in a lecture theatre on the subject of Christian theology and the meaning of God’s love. Heavy and provocative stuff indeed, but delivered by Bogarde with eloquence in a softly spoken yet forceful tone of voice. An excellent start and the audience know immediately that we are in for a good evening’s entertainment. The curtains then open to reveal an atmospheric backdrop of a time capsule comprising a Gentleman’s club on one side of the stage, which seamlessly merges with the musty academic den that is the home of Jack Lewis and his brother Major ‘Warnie’ Lewis. The set subsequently transforms into a Hotel Tea Room and Hospital ward as the story progresses. Director Phil Rainforth comments in the programme notes that the staging was a challenge and the production team have succeeded in adapting what is a very small stage into a practical and interesting set that is just perfect for this play.
The play moves at a gentle pace but the narrative provides an emotionally charged rollercoaster of a ride that fully engages with the audience. It is not all doom and gloom though; there is light hearted humour too, even in the most poignant of scenes.
There is a cast of 11 players, with Rupert Bogarde and Stevie Parker in the lead roles of Lewis and Gresham. Both are clearly skilled actors and are convincing in their respective parts – Stevie Parker handles the American accent well throughout and gives Gresham a force of nature, yet is still a woman who is besotted with Lewis. Rupert Bogarde portrays Lewis as an erudite, kind and loving man. Richard Barnett plays the main supporting role of Warnie Lewis and is totally believable in his brotherly understanding and tolerance for a man who other people think has gone off the rails. Stephen Ferber is very good as the pompous Professor Christopher Riley, as are Bill Walsh as Rev Harry Harrington and Mike Watson as Dr Maurice Oakley (and an ungrateful Greek Waiter!). William Cooper, as Douglas Gresham, delivers a fine performance as a well behaved boy who is largely seen but not heard. The smaller supporting parts are all well played by Pippa Keech, Jo Clarke, John Gardner and Hannah Marks.
The Vernon Theatre is not large in size but is huge in character, and was full to capacity with an appreciative audience on the opening night of Shadowlands. Tickets are probably now quite limited in availability on the evidence of this showing, so you’ll need to act quickly if you are to see this wonderful play in its current run that ends on 2 November.