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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndhams

By Matt Wolf

  Janie Dee & Charles Dance

Those awaiting that moment when an actor you think you know all of a sudden forces himself to be reconsidered anew owe it to themselves to see the surprisingly stirring new West End revival of Shadowlands, in which Charles Dance, playing an emotionally traumatised CS Lewis, cracks wide open and in so doing shows a range and strength of feeling that we've not seen before from him. The role, mind you, is a gift for actors, and won the late Nigel Hawthorne a Tony following Shadowlands' commercially unsuccessful Broadway run. Anthony Hopkins was no slouch, either,in Richard Attenborough's capable film version of William Nicholson's script. But what Dance brings singularly to the role is a continual tension between his own natural masculinity and the reined-in emotionalism not just of Lewis but of the clubbish, aspish, intellectually intense Oxford community in which this brilliant writer and thinker moved. When he thrusts his hands deep into his pockets, you sense not just the tweedy repression of a kind of Englishman that long ago became a cliche but a corporeal being at odds with a world in which such expression has never been allowed a voice. The result: a play that has a TV-movie feel about it - indeed, Shadowlands first began as one, starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom - feels unexpectedly raw and fresh. With luck, Dance's star turn will become one of the talking points of the fall season.

You probably recall the arc of the story: a celebrated writer and thinker, not least on such topics as suffering and faith, finds within himself untapped reserves of feeling and passion in the company of Joy Davidman (Janie Dee), a sprightly, straight-talking American divorcee who settles in Oxford with her young son, Douglas, following the break-up of her marriage. The tragedy, of course, is twofold. There's the fact that Joy succumbs quickly and lethally to bone cancer, which makes for a melodramatic first-act curtain to an otherwise notably sensitive production from director Michael Barker-Caven. Just as sad, from CS Lewis's point of view, is that it takes the fatal illness of a wife whom he first weds in a purely sexless civil ceremony in order to enable her to stay in Britain to find within him the genuine love that in turns leads to a second wedding, this time for real - followed not long after by Joy's death. As is the way of such chronicles, life experience proves overwhelming in a way that academic discourse does not, with Jack (as CS prefers to be called) discovering anew the weight of a suffering of which he first had an inkling, age eight. That was when the young Jack lost his own mother to cancer, at the same age as his stepson, Douglas, is in the play. His authorial project, meanwhile, was devoted to charting other realms, even if the now-solitary Jack feels the burden that goes with being left behind in this one: life, in other words, making a cruel mockery of literature, and hardly for the first time.

Nicholson's writing still has more than a flavor of 84 Charing Cross Road , that play's gentility here amplified by considerations of mortality,and one is more aware than ever that the script holds Joy at much the same uncomprehending remove as the confirmed English bachelors who circle around her as if she were some peculiar specimen. (It must be said that they are brilliantly acted on this occasion, from John Standing, hair askew, as the most overtly misogynist of the lot, through to Richard Durden in a sweet turn as Jack's seemingly stern but inevitably kindly brother.) Dee must be among the most immediately appealing of actresses, that p


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