Supposing all is right with the world, there is no way in which a production of Shadowlands could not be a tearjerker. And it would seem that the cosmic alignment remains in tact, as William Nicholson’s envisioning of C.S. Lewis’ ill-fated romance in the Autumn of his own life remains just as touching in the last week of Alastair Whatley’s touring version as it was when first adapted by the BBC in 1985, and then again by Richard Attenborough in his 1994 film starring Anthony Hopkins.
At the Richmond Theatre, Stephen Boxer takes on the role of the Narnia author who, in his fifties and safely ensconced in Oxford academic life, begins a postal correspondence with a forthright New Yorker named Joy Gresham, and whom he invites for tea when she visits the country on a respite from her alcoholic, sometimes abusive husband back in the States. Slowly but surely, this wholly unlikely pair strike the firmest of friendships; she because she has admired his writing from afar for so long, and he because her quick-witted and straight-talking manner seems to challenge him in a way that his short-sighted, port-guzzling colleagues cannot. She quite literally breathes air into him, to his conversation, to his mind, and for someone with so active a brain as he, that comes as a welcome injection of energy. When Joy is suddenly diagnosed with advanced bone cancer, Lewis’s previously solid faith is sorely tested.
We meet C.S. Lewis – or Jack, as he is known – lecturing on the perennial dilemma of how to reconcile belief in God with human suffering; how can God love us if he allows such pain to be inflicted on us in so many, and such awful ways? Lewis’s academic reasoning produces resolute explanations for this quandary, but for somebody who has never truly allowed anyone to get close to him (or, at least, since the death of his mother when he was eight years old), the true test of his devotion comes when Joy grows ill, just at the point when he realises the extent of his affection for her. We watch as his logical analysis battles against his emotional anguish, and as he wrestles with the dilemma that although such torment tests our faith most harshly, it is precisely at that point in time that we require, and indeed rest on, that same faith in order to fight through the pain we are experiencing. A subject on which Lewis has long lectured suddenly comes to life when he has to experience these emotions for himself.
Stephen Boxer excels as this deep, almost wistful thinker. He maintains the calm authority of a university don comfortable in his expertise, and yet displays a tenderness apart from his burly school-boy colleagues. He is gentle, considerate, and easily moves one to tears with his childishly resistant realization of deep emotion – and grief – when it arrives. This pensiveness also makes his rare outbursts all the more poignant. Boxer’s is an admirably considered performance, complemented by Amanda Ryan’s louder and decidedly coarse voice as Joy (who was brought up in the Bronx). With such a thick accent, it is a relief that Ryan doesn’t ham up the character too much – there are plenty of dry lines to raise laughs without any sort of histrionics and these are let alone, as they should be. She displays a cheeky and vivacious streak, and copes soundly with Joy’s physical deterioration. It remains tricky for a stage actor to give the impression of such a steep decline in health without simply limping more heavily (following a broken hip), and one is forced to employ the imagination a touch to get to where Joy is meant to be, but the overall effect is fine.
We face a similar problem with the design: although the main basic set places you firmly within Oxford’s university world through panels and arched windows – without actually having to see the spires which are referred to – the various screens and armchairs employed to set the different scenes do require some determined visualization on top in order to achieve the desired results. You have to choose to get into the swing of it if you want to believe the story. However, as soon as Boxer addresses the audience directly in the second half, as though its members are his students, one is rather inclined to give up picking holes altogether: his distress seems utterly real – and heartbreaking – so no one in their right mind would care about a silly looking hospital screen not quite doing its job.
Only Fools and Horses actor Denis Lill provides assured support as Jack’s affable brother, Warnie – he is at times adorably vague, and yet splendidly secure in his own resolve when his opinion really matters. Lill is an important pillar of this production, which comes to an end this week. Aside from hints at issues surrounding class, women, society, politics, faith, intelligence and who knows what else, the overriding theme here is love. And this love affair is played out with agonizing restraint, in the best of ways. Tissues should, without a doubt, be at the ready.
Shadowlands at Richmond Theatre until 30th July 2016. Production images by Jack Ladenburg. For more information and tickets please visit the website.