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The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, CS Lewis’ fantasy tale about mystical talking creatures in a magical winter wonderland, has enthralled generations of readers. Now, a ‘breathtaking’ new stage adaptation of the literary classic is visiting Birmingham Repertory Theatre following an acclaimed West End run. What’s On recently caught up with the show’s director, Michael Fentiman, to find out why the story remains such a firm family favourite...

Theatre director Michael Fentiman was a young boy when he discovered what lay through the wardrobe. Thanks to the 1980s BBC television series, he was one of millions of children who entered the world of CS Lewis’ Narnia books and experienced their magical adventures.

Now, a good few years later, Michael is introducing other children to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, through the hugely successful stage show which comes to Birmingham Rep this festive season.

“I was about seven when I first discovered the story,” he recalls. “It was the BBC series, with what felt at the time like really sophisticated animatronics. I remember thinking the lion was really fascinating but also scary and wondering why they were following the lion. 

“I was in awe at the show because it tapped into something and I was really drawn to it. I didn’t really understand what was so special about it, but I think it was because it has such a mythical quality to it; those sort of symbols pull you towards them in a way you don’t understand, but they completely compel.”

Published in 1950, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe tells the story of the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, who are evacuated during wartime to live with a professor in a sprawling house in the English countryside. There, they discover a wardrobe which is a secret portal to another world. 

In that world, Narnia, they find a frosty landscape under the spell of the White Witch, and together with the lion Aslan and a host of other colourful creatures, they set out to break the spell.

The book has been a bestseller for decades and has spawned numerous films, television series and theatre shows. So what does Michael believe is the attraction of the story?

“I think it’s about leaps of faith. I don’t necessarily mean faith in a religious way, but it’s about taking a leap of trust and belief in something bigger than yourself. 

“We did a lot of work on this show during the pandemic. We were managing to plan for this production while we were all locked in our houses, and I remember thinking to myself: ‘What is it I miss about being in the theatre?’ And what I discovered I missed most was being part of a group of people who go through a big challenge in an atmosphere of hope and somehow, at the end of it, find some sort of transformation, discover something they didn’t think they could. 

“And this story is similar. On some level, all young people, all kids, like the idea of being able to step into a realm of possibility, step through a wardrobe, take that leap into the impossible, and I feel like there is something inherently universal about how that fills people with wonder. 

“In terms of the theatre, my leap of wonder is the realm of the imagination contained in the story. There is something in there about what we can do together as a community; the idea that some of us go through struggle in order to find each other again and find happiness.”

Narnia is full of magical creatures and transformations, and Michael and the team were determined to create a stage show which does them justice. With a mix of puppetry, illusion and acting, they aim to bring the story vibrantly to life.

“We worked really hard to find a balance. Scenically we don’t fill in the picture like film can. We’ve asked the audience to use their imaginations to do the rest. 

“We have this epic stage and fantastic imagery, but there’s not a lot of literal depiction of location of the show because we’re asking the audience to take a leap with us. We work with an illusionist called Chris Fisher to try and do things that seem impossible. So the way we use magic and lighting and shift of focus achieves the possible from the seemingly impossible. 

“We’re trying to travel back from one location and one time, and we make certain changes seem incredibly quick so that the audience feel that they are also being dislocated through the wardrobe. We do our best to ensure the audience feel like they are also making the impossible leaps the characters have to move through.”

Michael says the production, which has been a hit in the West End and on a UK tour, is action-packed from beginning to end.

“When we first started the show, we only had five weeks of rehearsal, and on every single page something happens! There’s not really a moment when you don’t have something going on, so we did a lot of storyboarding to make sure we got it right. 

“We went in with a very detailed plan because in so many different sections there were multiple people feeding in to make that work. So we would have huge meetings about one small section, and then I’d leave that meeting and have another huge meeting about a different section. It was a huge logistical planning process.”

The team were also keen to ensure the show would be family friendly, so that new generations of children could discover the magical world of Narnia. Therefore the production carries an age recommendation of six and over.

“I’ve done a lot of work with young people, and it’s often a lot of the adults who worry about them being scared. What we have discovered across the run of the tour is that the kids enjoy the tension. They get behind that. 

“We’ve played the show to almost entire audiences of six-year-olds on matinees. They have moments where they’re thinking ‘What is happening?’ and you can hear them saying to their friends ‘Is he dead?’ Then, at the end of the show, they’re up on their feet screaming because they’ve been on something with us. 

“It’s very easy to patronise young people and children with the idea that they always want to see something big, bold, colourful and funny. But they also like to be led on a story which has some tension and some questions.”

Michael hopes that families coming to the show are not only enthralled by the adventure of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe but also enjoy sharing the experience of live theatre.

“I hope they have a really thrilling evening, where they feel that they can celebrate not just the show and the cast but also being in that theatre together. I think all great theatre is a celebration of humanity and togetherness - it reminds us more of the things we have in common than the things we don’t. I hope they have a thrilling time, are taken on a journey and experience all of the ups and the downs of the story.” 

by Diane Parkes

The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe shows at The Rep, Birmingham, from Tues 14 November to Sunday 28 January

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg