The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: children’s theatre can do better

Carousel Theatre for Young People is presenting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at the Waterfront Theatre.

Sereana Malani as the White Witch. If only evil were always this stylin’.

During the holiday season, adults are eager to take the kids in their lives to the theatre. That lovely human impulse should be rewarded with first-rate art. Unfortunately, Carousel Theatre for Young People’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is only okay.

Carousel is presenting Joseph Robinette’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s fantasy novel, in which four siblings find an unexpected portal to a place called Narnia. The cruel White Witch rules Narnia and has kept the land in winter for a hundred years, terrorizing its inhabitants, which include a centaur, a unicorn, and a pair of talking beavers. But a prophecy has foretold that four humans will overthrow her.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a sprawling tale, but it feels somewhat hollowed out in this production. Most problematically, the story builds to a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil but director Carole Higgins sucks the life out of the confrontation by presenting it as a game of chess in which pieces that represent the characters get moved around a board. Figuring out the difference between harmful aggression and necessary self-defence is one of the major tasks of childhood, so why shy away from it? Besides, kids love a good fight scene, and less heavy-handed stylization could clue them in that nobody’s really getting hurt.

Speaking of toothlessness, Mr. Tumnus is one of the most interesting characters in the story. He’s a faun who very nearly betrays Lucy, the first child who stumbles into Narnia: Tumnus appears to befriend Lucy, but he plans to kidnap her and deliver her to the Witch. Tumnus quickly comes around, of course. Nonetheless, there’s an edge of unpredictability about him—as there should be with all magical characters—and deep eccentricity. As played here by Kayla Dunbar, however, he’s an ordinary sentimentalist.

That said, there are also some excellent performances in this interpretation and Chris Lam’s Edmund is chief among them. Edmund is one of Lucy’s brothers. He is also a traitor who comes dangerously close to selling out his siblings. Throughout, Lam stays emotionally true—as Edmumd calculates what he’s willing to do in exchange for the Witch’s bribe of Turkish delight, and as he realizes, with shame and remorse, where his greediness very nearly led him. Lam also knows what’s funny to kids. In the performance I saw, the show didn’t really start until Lam’s Edmund awkwardly prostrated himself in front of the Witch.

Blue-lipped and white-haired, Sereana Malani is all elegant evil as the villain. Nick Fontaine makes a wonderfully bothered Mr. Beaver. And Tai Amy Grauman is amusingly committed as a flirtatious unicorn. I also appreciated Kaitlynn Yott’s credible youthfulness as Lucy and Tim Carlson’s innocence is as her brother Peter.

Kiara Lawson’s costumes are hit (Mr. Beaver’s tweed-and-leather ensemble) and miss (the Unicorn’s tacky sequins). Shizuka Kai’s set is imaginative: the set pieces are all made out of stacks of books. But there’s also something awfully well-meaning about the book-focused design. A lamppost that is a major landmark in Narnia, is a tall pile of volumes with one illuminated open book perched on top as the lamp. Imagination is illuminating; books open up hidden worlds. I get it, I get it. But don’t tell me what’s good for me; tell me a story.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Adapted from C.S. Lewis’s novel by Joseph Robinette. Directed by Carole Higgins. A Carousel Theatre for Young People production at the Waterfront Theatre on Thursday, December 21. Continues until January 6.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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