"Late flowering love and loss"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 29/06/16

Birdsong Productions ‘Shadowlands’ at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre is the perfect antidote to these divisive and embittered times. The love story between Jack - C.S Lewis (Stephen Boxer) - and Joy Gresham (Amanda Ryan) is portrayed with tenderness, intelligence, wit and sincerity in William Nicholson’s wonderful play.

Stephen Boxer’s portrayal of an aging academic believing himself safely tucked up for the night away from the hurly-burly, living in the shadowlands at the foothills of Eternity, is masterful. Watching him unbend to love is like seeing a sleepwalker grappling with a deckchair after a long winter. Amanda Ryan’s Joy is… well… a joy to watch. Her stunning combination of energy, intellectual rigour, courage and vulnerability proved as life-enhancing to this reviewer as it did to her beloved Jack. As Warnie, Jack’s brother, Denis Lill is understated decency and kindness personified.

I was transported back in time as I appreciated the brilliant set (Anne-Marie Woodley and Director Alastair Woodley), parts of which effortlessly evoked my Fifties childhood. That also applies to the excellent costumes (David Morgan); outfits such as I can see on the earliest pages of my photograph album (though perhaps not the period-perfect, slightly dusty old dressing gowns!).

I was struck by the ensemble work in this production; secondary characters were fully realised and the scene-shifting was done with grace and efficiency. The circle of friends surrounding Jack responded very differently to the explosion of Joy into his life, particularly when she was effortlessly and wittily able to counter their elitism, lofty intellectual arrogance and casual misogyny. Jeffrey Harmer (Reverend Harry Harrington), Richard Holliday (Doctor Maurice Oakley) and Ian Marr (Alan Gregg and the Doctor) give sterling performances as Jack’s Oxford friends and colleagues.

Simon Shackleton as Professor Christopher Riley (a character based loosely on J.R.R. Tolkein) gives a fully rounded performance of someone not in the least beguiled by Joy. His scepticism provides a balance to this heart-warming, heart-breaking story – a story that sets out to remind us that real love is possible at any stage of life and is not defeated by death. As Jack wrote, "You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream".

Holly Smith and Alastair Higgins imbue their supporting roles with professional aplomb. As Douglas, one of Joy’s sons, Shannon Rewcroft captures perfectly a shy, bookish child, adjusting to life in England and all too soon facing the death of his beloved mother. In relation to Douglas, Denis Lill was superb. It has been one of the pleasures in writing this review to find out more about Warnie (and, incidentally, the formidable Janie King Moore. Thank goodness she was not around when Joy Gresham came on the scene).

Through Douglas we are invited to consider the role in our imaginations of the magic of fantasy worlds such as Narnia and indeed, Heaven. When, at the end, the lamppost was fully illuminated, I was profoundly moved. Issues of faith – steadfast or wavering or lost - and the role of mythology in giving us structure, comfort and hope are part of the fabric of this outstanding play.

It is easy to say that love, kindness and decency could readily flourish in the relatively affluent Oxford of the Fifties, but this play breaks through all that and reminds us that compassion costs nothing.

I leave the last word to Jack. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

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