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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

What a delightful production!

The oddest thing about AUB’s latest production, a collaboration with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s new music group, Kokoro, is that nowhere in the programme does it appear to acknowledge the source of this adaptation of CS Lewis’s children’s classic. Fortunately, having played Mr Tumnus in the same adaptation twelve years ago, I recognised it as that created by poet Adrian Mitchell, with Shaun Davey’s music, originally commissioned for and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001-02.

As is customary, the production is guided by AUB academic staff and visiting lecturers but uses the talents of students on the BA (Hons) courses in Acting, Costume and Performance Design, and Make Up for Media and Performance. As has been the case with all of the AUB productions that I have attended – and consistently enjoyed – the success of the production, for all its individually notable features, comes from the combination of design and performance elements. Director Katharine Piercey and choreographer Claire Camble-Hutchins both use the Lighthouse stage and student Tish Mantripp’s set design extremely effectively, the production flowing deceptively effortlessly between scenes and the stylised movement, in particular of the ten-strong ensemble beautifully complementing the performances of the featured actors.

Playing four young children convincingly brings its own particular challenges, even for young adults. However, from their first appearance, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy (Jack Nash, Susannah Greenow, Jacob Carter and Jasmine Collecott respectively) overcame any self-consciousness and simply were the four Pevenseys. The first two aforementioned have, I think, the slightly harder task since their two characters are moving out of the undiluted childishness of Lucy and Edmund and since it is the latter two through whom the narrative principally moves. Nevertheless, both Jack Nash and Susannah Greenow gave unfaltering performances, the more unselfish because there was no sense of either trying to compete with the younger portrayals; instead they enhanced the latter by bringing credibility to the whole sibling inter-relationships. Very generous performances.

Jacob Carter’s Edmund is extremely well-judged, fully realising the self-justifying spitefulness of the character early on while avoiding alienating us so much that we cannot accept his subsequent repentance and transformation, all of which he handled very persuasively. As Lucy, Jasmine Collecott is, I have to say, an absolute delight. Whatever her actual age, she physically and vocally captures Lucy – at least the Lucy I remember from the original book – in an undemonstrative and sustained performance that engages the audience from the outset. Plaudits to all four.

Elizabeth Lavender-Powell brings a strong presence to her role as The White Witch, maintaining a consistent characterisation throughout, her stage presence and smooth physicality suitably distancing her from the play’s more sympathetic characters. Could she be even more unpleasant? Icier? Perhaps, but that is a fine quibble. She is well-supported by her sidekick, Grumpskin, one of those parts with which any actor ought to have (disciplined) fun – and Samuel Terry certainly achieves this. Despite knowing from the outset that he is one of the “baddies”, it was clear that the audience enjoyed his presence. Equally but contrastingly, Joshua Anthony-Jones produced a Mr Tumnus whose sad generosity of spirit helped draw us into the world beyond the wardrobe.

A personal favourite for me was Reece Spencer-Avison’s Geordie Beaver: the character exuded warmth and a kind of avuncular protectiveness, with just a dash of being cowed by Mrs Beaver, another delightful piece of casting in the form of Holly Diana Potton, and, of course by Aslan himself. The Lion King of Narnia is here represented through War Horse-style puppetry, within which Rochelle Cook gives him voice and character, achieving a satisfying balance between gravitas and affectionate. Vocally and physically, it works – as simple as that. This use of puppets, created and operated by almost thirty students, works well throughout: the designs, their manipulation and vocalisation work really well with the human performers.

Visually, the production works: it opens and at times remains with a very simple, unfussy set and lighting but the latter, in particular, is used effectively to allow the mood to change in the course of the performance. As indicated, transitions between scene and setting are barely noticeable, partly because of Katharine Piercey’s direction, partly because of the shifting focus facilitated by the design and partly because of Claire Camble-Hutchins’ skilful choreography, which – umbrellas and all (don’t ask; go and see!) – adds a real fluency throughout. It must be a joy to all concerned to work on projects such as this with so many talented young people.

The two young children sitting behind me had, along with all the others in an audience drawn from all age-groups, clearly enjoyed the show enormously. For him, Aslan was the highlight; for her, the ending. And why not? In a world of Brexit, Trump and climate fears, this production, notwithstanding and perhaps partly because of the unmistakable Christian allegory, is a breath of fresh air, an evening of innocence, wonder and hope. I was as enchanted as when Miss Shuker read it to us in Class 3 more than fifty years ago.

If you possibly can, whatever your age – and children will love it, perhaps as an introduction to live theatre? – buy yourself tickets for either of the two remaining performances at Poole’s Lighthouse, at 2.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. on Saturday 11 May.