Outstanding performances make Chichester's Shadowlands a powerful, poignant treat

Hugh Bonneville and Liz White - photo by Manuel Harlan
Hugh Bonneville and Liz White - photo by Manuel Harlan

REVIEW: Shadowlands, Chichester Festival Theatre, until May 25.

Hugh Bonneville and Liz White work together beautifully to offer a rich, compelling, poignant and superbly-acted start to the main-house summer season in Rachel Kavanaugh’s assured production of William Nicholson’s Shadowlands.

For all his big and small screen successes, it is great to be reminded that Bonneville is also the most complete stage actor, excellent in his comic timing but also deeply moving as he shows us a buttoned-up C S “Jack” Lewis in the full flush of late love and yet in the certain knowledge that he is soon to lose it in the most brutal fashion.

Bonneville goes from the most immense tenderness to the rawest of grief and then flashes of anger as he ponders the imponderables, a God who doesn’t just allow suffering in general but seems indifferent to Lewis’ own torment, giving him a gift as precious as it is unexpected, only to snatch it away so cruelly. Bonneville commands the stage with the sheer naturalness of the emotions he conveys, from one extreme to the other, from delight to despair.

Opposite him, Liz White, as the variously Jewish, Christian and communist New York poet who effectively invites herself into his life, is the perfect foil. She gives us a woman who fairly sparkles, shaking up everything as she erupts into Jack’s staunchly-bachelor existence.

The measure of both actors’ success is that you feel you can perfectly well understand why she falls for him and he for her – which of course adds immeasurably to the tragedy that unfolds.

There is fine support from a gaggle of crusty, variously suspicious academics, bridling at Gresham’s forthright, decidedly-American intrusion; there is also a lovely performance from Andrew Havill as Lewis’ brother Warnie, equally untrusting of Joy to start with, but open to her charm and ultimately showing Lewis the way forward.

Peter McKintosh’s set proves just the right platform, bookish and yet with glimpses into the world C S Lewis created. And for once, the revolving stage seems central to the flow of the play, rather than a distraction or an irritation.

With This Is My Family offering fine pleasures in the Minerva, this has been comfortably artistic director Daniel Evans’ best start to a summer season so far.

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