Review of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe as it bewitches Sunderland Empire audiences

Winter is coming – but it’s never looked quite so magical as it does in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.

Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 2:21 pm

I wasn’t as familiar with this new production as most and wasn’t expecting, therefore, to be quite so blown away by this imaginative retelling of the CS Lewis classic, which is making its North East debut at Sunderland Empire.

The most spectacular staging I’ve seen since the curtain rose on theatres once more post-Lockdown, it’s a fantastical feat of storytelling with high production values, shimmering sets and stunning costumes.

Like many people, the original book was one of my favourite bedtime reads as a child, and this production is one that really does justice to the enduring tale of a time transporting wardrobe, talking animals and perpetual winter.

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Chris Jared as Aslan. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

You can almost feel the crunch of snow under your feet as swirling silks and clever use of lighting transport the four Pevensie children and their knitted tank tops from wartime Britain to the wilds of Narnia.

In a twist to the norm, the musicians join them as actors on stage performing fitting folk-infused tracks around their fellow cast members which really helps to sweep you up in the fantasy.

The siblings, played by Ammar Duffus (Peter), Shaka Kalokoh (Edmund), Robyn Sinclair (Susan) and Karise Yansen (Lucy) have a good chemistry as the squabbling brothers and sisters who end up becoming rulers of the land.

Meanwhile, Samantha Womack, perhaps most famous for her role in Eastenders, soars, quite literally, as The White Witch, with her flowing furs and chillingly crisp enunciation that cuts through the stage like a knife. She’s captivating to watch and has never made making a Faustian pact – just to get some more Turkish Delight – look quite so appealing.

Samantha Womack as The White Witch. Karise Yensen - Lucy Samantha Womack - The White Witch / Mrs Macready Chris Jared - Aslan Sam Buttery - Mr Beaver Unwin - Mr Tumnus Michael Ahomka Lindsay - Maugrim / Solider / Satyr / White Stag Oliver Bingham - Mr Brinkworth / March Hare / Aslan Puppeteer Scott Brooks - Mr Pope / Fox Trot / Associate Music Captain  Kate Parr - Miss Gumley-Warmley / Phoenix Grace Wylde - Mrs Pevensie / Robin / Gryphon Johnson Willis - Professor Kirk / Father Christmas / Wise Owl / White Mouse  Rachel Dawson - Miss Chutney / Blue Badger / Spirit of the Moon Oliver Grant - Mr Wilson / Schrodinger / Red Squirrel / Head Cruel / Aslan Puppeteer / Puppet Captain  Matthew James Hinchcliffe - Mr Marsden / Mauve Mole / Music Captain Shaun McCourt - Mr Granville / Jack Rabbit / Aslan Puppeteer Christina Tedders - Mrs Beaver Sophie Naglik - Swing Tash Holway - Swing / Dance Captain Brad Veitch - Swing Conor O’Kane - Swing

And it isn’t just the cold which will take your breath away as she rises into the sky in a bewitching, balletic close to act 1.

The good to her evil is played with a masterful calm by Chris Jared who, despite sharing the role with a roaring puppet, manages to work symbiotically with the structure to create one coherent, commanding character.

At the other end of the cat scale, Professor Kirk’s ginger house cat Schrodinger also enchants in this Wind in the Willows-esque piece, which is filled with charming and comical animals, played by both puppets and actors. Special mention to the beavers, Sam Buttery and Christina Tedders, who deserve their own spin off Mr & Mrs reality show.

Some excellent physical acting too from Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as the snarling, rippling wolf henchman Maugrim, who is truly menacing as he bounds across the stage.

Karise Yansen (Lucy) Jez Unwin (Mr Tumnus)

Not sure what to expect from the show? Think the puppetry of War House meets the magic of Wicked meets the other worldliness of Game of Thrones.

It’s been an undoubtedly difficult time for the arts, but this is a production that truly opens the door to the immersive magic of theatre once more.

:: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is at Sunderland Empire until Saturday, December 4. Tickets from atgtickets.com. It’s worth noting that these performances start at 7pm, as opposed to the usual 7.30pm.

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Ammar Duffus (Peter) Chris Jared (Aslan)