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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

Nigel Hawthorne was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for his portrayal of author and Oxford don C S Lewis when William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands, premiered in 1990; Anthony Hopkins starred in the 1994 BAFTA-winning film adaptation. Now Charles Dance steps into the shoes of the Narnia creator for this stage revival at the Wyndham’s. Caroline Bishop went to see it…

C S Lewis, the author of children’s novels The Chronicles Of Narnia, died in 1963 at the age of 64, three years after the death from cancer of Joy Gresham, the American Jewish divorcee 15 years his junior who became his wife in 1956. Nicholson’s Shadowlands is the dramatisation of the late-flowering romance between Lewis – known as Jack – and Joy, which transcended the stuffy establishment of Oxford.

When we meet him in 1952, Jack Lewis (Dance) is an acclaimed writer, Oxford professor and life-long bachelor, who shares a house with his older brother and fellow bachelor Warnie (Richard Durden). His days revolve around lecturing, writing and port-fuelled discussions with his band of stuffy Oxford contemporaries, including the intellectual snob and cynic Christopher (John Standing). When Jack agrees to have tea with Joy Gresham (Janie Dee), a fan of his work with whom he has been corresponding, a shot of exuberance and colour is injected into his life which both unnerves him and attracts him. Against the advice of his Oxford chums, Jack befriends the American woman, a friendship that intensifies after Joy’s marriage falls apart and she moves from New York to Oxford with her son, Douglas.

Nicholson’s moving play and Dance’s performance convey both the emotional turmoil that Jack finds himself in, and his inability to admit to or recognise those emotions. On a religious level, this deeply Christian man cannot reconcile his love for a divorcee with his obedience to God. On a social level, the notion of love is scoffed at and unaccepted in the Oxford circle which surrounds him. And on a personal level, the confirmed bachelor is frightened of these alien feelings of love and without the skills to translate them into actions. As a result, Jack and Joy’s friendship does not move on, despite entering into a civil marriage of convenience, until Joy is diagnosed with cancer.

Dee’s Joy is a strong, intelligent and direct woman who blows away the cobwebs of Oxford society with some of the best lines in the play. Her attraction to Jack is based on a meeting of minds – though the physical attraction remains unclear – and she shows a vulnerability in his presence that hides beneath her vibrant exterior.

Durden is touching as the brother who is at first appalled by Jack’s friendship with the ghastly American woman, only to become quietly besotted with her. His emotionally inept but heartfelt attempt to cheer up Douglas with a ‘bun tea’ while his mother lies in hospital is deeply moving.

While Standing’s Christopher remains the misogynist cynic who puts no value on love – or Americans – Lewis finally realises that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

Shadowlands plays at the Wyndham’s until 15 December. Book tickets for em>CB


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