Shadowlands is a stage adaptation of William Nicholson’s award-winning television play, a tender story of inhibited writer C.S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham. It is set in nineteen fifties Oxford. The relationship that initially starts out as a two-year transatlantic correspondence develops into something deeper when Joy arrives in Oxford.
To ‘Jack’, as Lewis called himself, it is a revelation as he warms to her intellectual assertiveness much to the chagrin of his university colleagues. From the tentative and timid beginnings, their relationship develops into a deep abiding love that grows even stronger when he recognises that Joy has a terminal illness. Not having read the play I was at first concerned that an evening of deep philosophical debate was about to be thrust upon us.
The opening scene addressed to both his students and the audience sees Lewis stating that ‘The subject of my talk tonight is love, in the presence of pain and suffering.’ I should not have been so hasty. We see later that this is just a marker, a hint of what is to be a major tenet of the play’s theme. Professor Lewis has yet to face his trial.
As Jack, Stephen Boxer is never dry and shines with wit, cordiality, and charm in contrast to his colleagues. To them, any change to their closeted and cloistered community, especially if it involves women, is a disturbing and fearful prospect.
The set, modest yet flexible, captured these inner sanctums, totally disregarding life beyond the University’s walls. Quite fittingly, because we begin to realise that Jack’s life is the world of sitting rooms, studies, and college High Table. That is until Joy’s appearance.
Joy played by a spirited Amanda Ryan, is both exciting and mischievous and the catalyst that affects all of their lives. She is a breath of fresh modern air breezing through Mathew Arnold’s ‘sweet City’ and ‘dreaming spires’.
Director Alistair Whatley and the cast capture perfectly the feelings of all the characters without mawkishness, even adding touches of humour that complements the narrative without throwing a veil over the main message.
In the end, an exhausted Jack having loved and lost comes to appreciate that life is not a rehearsal but something that must be lived albeit with its pain. It may not have a successful conclusion for him, but somehow it felt to me, as a spectator, both plausible and satisfying.
Nevertheless, I am sure many of the audience left with a tear in their eye, or maybe even an ache in their heart though still feeling suitably enchanted by the performance’s fine acting and production.
Shadowlands is Birdsong production in association with Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre