Pithy exchanges in the loveless world of the mind - Shadowlands at Cambridge Arts Theatre


Shadowlands - Credit: Archant

Why is there pain and suffering in a world with a God who loves humanity?

This deep question, posed at the beginning of Shadowlands by the character of C S (Jack) Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, seems far from our vision of the creator of those magical children’s stories. He is no heroic Aslan the Lion but a crusty 1950s Oxford Don trapped in a dry, stiff upper-lipped world of misogynist men in academic gowns.

Into this loveless world of the mind steps Joy Davidman, a talkative poet, a married woman with a young son and (horror of horror) an American. This Yankee in Oxford causes more than feathers to ruffle. The chaps are shocked by this audacious lady drawn to Lewis, her literary hero. Thus begins an unlikely love affair between the bottled up Englishman and the colourful New Yorker. It is one doomed to an early end as pain and suffering overwhelm the edgy relationship; Joy is stricken with cancer and her relationship with Jack is tested.

William Nicholson’s skilful script penetrates the chilly veneer of post-war academe; there is much wit in the pithy exchanges and a series of marvellous character studies.

First is the touching relationship between Jack and his even more repressed brother Warnie (beautifully played by Denis Lill). There is a fine gaggle of male-bonded colleagues of Lewis each of whom has exchanged joyous life for dull routine and cynicism.

Despite its range of characters, this play is essentially a two-hander. Stephen Boxer was quite outstanding as Jack Lewis and Amanda Ryan totally convincing as Joy. Their awkward relationship filled with unspoken passion grew through the two hours of the play. It is a delicate and incredibly moving story, one which questions the nature of loss, pain, suffering but above all, love.