Shadowlands tells the heart-breaking story of author CS Lewis’s late-flowering love with American poet Joy Gresham – a play loosely based on true events written by William Nicholson which started life as a BBC drama in 1985 before being adapted for the stage, later transferring to the silver screen starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
The moving play explores love and loss as Lewis is drawn to an abrasive American fan, surprised to find love blossoming in later life as he meets his match in this bold new companion. Outspoken Joy – a New Yorker 17 years his junior, played with an impeccable accent from Amanda Ryan – and her son Douglas meet the reserved Englishman and his brother Warnie in Oxford after corresponding for some time. A friendship forms as the pair spend time together but their relationship takes a turn when Joy divorces her alcoholic, unfaithful husband and moves permanently to Oxford.
Stephen Boxer effortlessly captures the shyness of Lewis and slow blossoming of passion as he spends more time with Joy, soon marrying her to help her gain citizenship, all the while assuring themselves of their platonic friendship and the purely ‘technical’ matrimony. Through it all Lewis’s brother Warnie, brilliantly played by Denis Lill, stands by, a character I grew particularly fond of not least for his dry humour and witty one-liners, but for his quiet contemplation of his brother’s relationship, one Lewis’s own friends disapprove of, and his heart-warming closeness with his brother.
Lewis and Joy’s relationship is soon tested when Joy collapses, diagnosed with advanced cancer, provoking a poignant moment in the play as Lewis battles with his Christian faith and belief in God. In a time of heartache the pair realise their love for one another and Lewis’s plans and convictions are sorely tested as he battles with the realisation he will lose his wife so soon after their love affair began. CS Lewis’s powerful notion that ‘Real life hasn’t happened yet, this is just the Shadowlands’, provides solace in a time of anguish, for us in the audience as much as for the characters on stage.
From the opening scene the play is challenging and all consuming, beautifully played by a stellar cast who so convincingly become the characters they represent. The inventive set allows us to be transported from high tea to a cosy lounge and on to Greece in a matter of seconds, while the power of Nicholson’s writing transports us to an almost timeless world full of life’s great questions, that through great performance promise to draw us in and leave a tear in the eye at the end.
Shadowlands, a Birdsong Production in association with The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, shows at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich until Saturday 19th March. Visit www.wolseytheatre.co.uk to buy tickets.
Images: Jack Ladenburg