Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Worthy homage to a masterpiece

Rob Phillips (Warnie) (right) clearly has problems of his own – and only young Douglas (Eliot Silver) is taking any notice. Denise Phillips (Joy Gresham) and Tony Mackey (C S Lewis) have thoughts that are elsewhere.


Highbury Theatre Centre, Sutton Coldfield


LET'S begin by giving a medal to the splendid people backstage. There are many scene changes and there is plenty for them to do – but they do it so unobtrusively that there is no reason to be aware of them as they work their silent transformations, time and time again, behind a sombre curtain.

The other reason for the seamless shifts from one scene to the next is that they are largely played alternately, in front of Oxford settings or in front of the curtain.

This is down to director Nigel Higgs, who has spurned the script's request for the repeated lowering of a screen, which would probably have added ten minutes to the running time. Instead, he has deftly allowed one scene to melt smoothly into another. It is the sensitive sort of touch that is his trademark.

But he has had other things on his mind as well, and it is clear that he has tackled them just as decisively, to produce a version of William Nicholson's ultimately heart-wrenching masterpiece that is quite wonderfully worthy of its subject matter.

As generally tends to happen at Highbury, he has a top-quality cast, immeasurably strengthened this time – because this time Tony Mackey has turned up from Shropshire to make his first appearance for four years. He plays C S (“Jack”) Lewis, creator of the Narnia Chronicles and ultimately the world-weary survivor of the tragedy that took away his wife, the poet and writer Joy Gresham, who succumbed to cancer in 1960.

This is a beautiful performance; a gentle understating of the life, the love and the character of the man we see here seeking enlightenment about his soul and questioning his God as he seeks to understand why a loving God lets bad things happen.


As Lewis's personal tragedy unfolds, Mr Mackey's voice finds a moving, tremulous little quaver that inhibits his considerations of life's unfairness. He does not push it at us, but it's there, beautifully accomplished, and it's a world away from the happiness he has found until now.

This is a performance of power and integrity that deserves a counterpoint, and in Denise Phillips's Joy Gresham, the woman who arrived in the all-male common-room enclave of Magdalene College, Oxford, it receives one. We see her riding the shock-waves of disbelief and transparent mistrust, admirably produced by Rob Gregory, Dan Payne and Peter Molloy. But, more important, we see the slow growth of love with Lewis.

Again, this is a sterling contribution to a production of heart-warming power – a production, indeed, that climaxes to a throat-lumping finish that was accompanied on the first night by the sort of pin-drop silence that audiences produce when they are moved beyond measure.

Rob Phillips is Major “Warnie” Lewis, bibulous brother of the writer. He does like his drink, does Warnie. This is a lovely performance, carrying the appropriate aura of a military past, all mixed in with a clearly human side and a bit of a bumble.

Mark Nattrass is a kindly doctor and young Elliot Silver is safely entrusted with the role of the boy Douglas.

I suspect that by the end it was pretty well not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house time – a sniffy tribute to a towering production. To 25-06-11.

John Slim 

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