Review: THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW (Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on May 12, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by C.S. Lewis

Adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien

Directed by Tim Carroll

Set by Douglas Paraschuk

Costumes by Jennifer Goodman

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Cameron Davis

Music direction, original music and sound designed by Claudio Vena

Cast: Kyle Blair

Starr Domingue

Deborah Hay

Patty Jamieson

Vanessa Sears

Travis Seetoo

Steven Sutcliffe

Michael Therriault

 A faithful rendering of C.S. Lewis’ book about the beginning of the Narnia world in a production geared towards children that uses technology, puppets and masks effectively.

The Story. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis charts the beginning of the Narnia series of children’s books, about magic, other worlds, and how much damage a wicked queen can cause when she’s slighted and pissed off.

It’s about two children Digory and Polly. Digory has come from the country with his sick mother to live in London with his aunt Letty and Uncle Andrew. His father is off fighting in the war (WWI).  Polly lives next door and befriends Digory.  Uncle Andrew is shiftless, mean, a bully and a bit of a magician. He dreams of going to other worlds and has created magical rings to do it. To see if they work, Digory and Polly use the magical rings to go to other worlds where they meet: Queen Jadis, a real piece of mean work, Aslan, a noble lion who wants to create a world called Narnia where people are good etc. and all manner of other odd creatures.

The Production. I saw the production with about 375 students.  The students from various public schools had come from a theatre workshop (as part of their theatre-going experience) where they made crowns that they wore during the show. I saw Kyle Blair in costume: shorts, nice shirt, knee high socks and shoes, chat up some children in the audience. He took notes while he chatted then when the show began he rushed up the aisle for the next scene.

A configuration of cardboard boxes is piled up centre stage. Several screens hang down from the flies along the back and side walls of the stage, spilling around the proscenium arch and in front of the side walls of the theatre auditorium. I figure that director Tim Carroll will be using projections as he did a few years ago at the Stratford Festival for his production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

When the production begins a group of people on stage introduce themselves as the mystery detectives (I believe) who ferret out mysteries and solve them.

A family is moving. The boy and the girl of the family occupy their time recalling a dream they had. This will segue into the story of The Magician’s Nephew where the boy and the girl will become Digory and Polly.

There is a lot of business of moving boxes around the set to create a wall, a tunnel, a window etc. Cameron Davis’ projections create the impressive perspective of the tunnel the children crawl through. There are wonderful creations of space, the various worlds the children visit and other visions that take us into the story.  There is enough technological dazzle with lots of projections setting the locations to engage the kids but not so much that the play is overpowered.

Tim Carroll’s staging is simplistic—many scenes are delivered directly to the audience rather than to other characters.  But the projections, the puppets and masks are first rate as is the cast. In particular the creation of a bird that will carry the children and a horse is pretty impressive, as is a chair that Uncle Andrew (a soft-talking-oily-acting-spooky-smiling Steven Sutcliffe) sits in that looks like a cardboard box from one direction and an ornate chair from another.

As Digory and Polly, Travis Seetoo and Vanessa Sears respectively are charm itself—he’s sweet and boyish and she is matter of fact and sensible.  As Jadis the Queen, sometimes called a witch, Deborah Hay is formidable, deliciously evil and frightening when put into an adult perspective of every bully who every terrorized anyone. She wants nothing less than to rule the world and would have too if it weren’t for Aslan and the beginning of the land of Narnia.

Aslan is played with nobility by Kyle Blair (in a wonderful lion’s mask) who wears an army uniform with sergeant’s stripes as a nod to WWI. Tim Carroll is acknowledging the centenary of the end of WWI with some of his programming this season. It’s beautifully ironic that a soldier plays a figure who wants to create a land of peace and good.

Michael Therriault is charmingly Cockney as the Cabbie. But when the cabby is asked to sing a song to lighten the mood, Therriault launches into “The Lambeth Walk” a cheesy bit of an insider joke—he starred in Me and My Girl last year leading the rousing “Lambeth Walk” that stopped the show. Why “cheesy”? Because Me and My Girl with “The Lambeth Walk” was produced in 1937 and The Magician’s Nephew takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. Director Tim Carroll’s penchant for cheesy jokes is tiresome and bogs down the pace.

 Comment. he production of The Magician’s Nephew is obviously for children of all ages and heights. C.S. Lewis’ classic book was adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien and he’s pretty faithful to the book, even using dialogue from the book.

But he frames it with a group of people who say they are mystery detectives and are seeking out people’s dreams –I found this murky so am not clear who they really are.  While the two kids at the beginning of the production are recalling a dream they had, the group of detectives oversee the story. They seem to know what is happening next in the telling and I found that odd.  My quibble is that the framing devise doesn’t make sense here. The Magician’s Nephew is not the result of someone’s dream. It’s the result of the blunder of Uncle Andrew to make magic with these rings without thinking of the consequences.

On one level the whole notion of magic and other worlds appeals to kids and their imaginations.  But for adults it goes deeper. C.S. Lewis was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.  He taught English at Cambridge and Oxford and also wrote on Christianity and philosophy. So one can look at The Magician’s Nephew as a work about the forces of good (the children) and Evil (Queen Jadis). One can look at Aslan, the lion as a Christ figure who wanted to create a world of good and kindness. The story is rich in themes of this sort that would appeal to an adult audience.  But this production certainly aims for a young audience. If my audience of young kids is any indication, they will love it.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Media Premiere: May 9, 2018.

Opening Celebration. May 26, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.



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