Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reimagined, still charming

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Where: Phoenix Theatre (Roger Bishop Theatre)

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When: To Oct. 18

Rating: 3 1/2 (out of five)

Few children’s books are more beloved than C.S. Lewis’s 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Many know it from a 2005 Disney film adaptation, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (brilliantly spoofed in Saturday Night Live’s comic video Lazy Sunday).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy about four English children who enter a magical world, Narnia, through a wardrobe portal. The adventures they have are epic — the Pevensies do battle with the evil White Witch, who casts a spell plunging Narnia into permanent winter (with no Christmas; sorry, kids). Along the way they encounter such anthropomorphic wonders as talking lions and beavers, not to mention a militant Father Christmas who equips the children with swords and daggers.

The University of Victoria’s theatre department has opened its season with a pocket-sized stage adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A family theatre drama with comic elements, it’s an enjoyable 90 minutes (not including intermission). The show is rather heavy on text and short on visual fireworks — so it’s likely best suited to the eight-and-up crowd.

Adapted by Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, the two-hander stars UVic alumni Mack Gordon and Kaitlin Williams. The company opted for a bare-bones approach — no doubt hoping imaginations of young theatregoers would make up for a lack of flashy stage-craft or a large cast.

In this version, Peter and Lucy are presented as grownups. They re-visit the magic wardrobe and re-imagine their Narnian adventures, related in condensed form. The darkly lit set is spare, essentially a wardrobe, an easy chair, a trunk, a reading lamp. The actors wear coats and blankets as costumes over their 1940s street clothes. Different characters are suggested mostly through movement and tone of voice. The only elaborate piece of stage-craft is an ambitious battery of sound cues, dispatched cleverly and effectively.

The performers are engaging. On Thursday, Gordon shone the brightest, bringing a puckish theatrical chutzpah to such characters as Tumnus the faun and Mr. Beaver.

Williams was at her best playing the imperious White Witch, who hooks young Edmund Pevensie on Turkish delight like a crafty drug dealer.

Because there are oodles of characters and just two players (I suspect three would work better), it’s occasionally tricky figuring out who’s who.

And there’s a lot of exposition at the beginning, which might put off those young theatregoers whose attention spans are as long as the typical video game.

Overall, it’s a charming show. Lewis’s rapturous, almost fetishistic descriptions of succulent meals remind us of food shortages suffered by post-war Britain. And the story’s Biblical echoes — the sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan the Lion, for instance, and references to the “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” — give The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a certain gravitas.

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