It’s an opinion sometimes expressed that small village drama groups should stick to “safe” productions such as light comedies and pantos. This is not a view shared by Warkworth Drama Group – and thank goodness. The group’s production of William Nicholson’s award-winning “Shadowlands” at Warkworth’s Memorial Hall last week was an absolute triumph.
It was undoubtedly a courageous choice of play, tackling unflinchingly as it does the themes of love, death, faith, and the purpose of human suffering. Heavy-going? Yes, at times, but never less than thought provoking and profoundly moving. It also requires some complex shifts in time and place, and between reality and fantasy, which present a difficult challenge to the producer working on a small stage with limited resources. All praise then to director Ralph Firth and producer Meg Dixon for rising to that challenge and making it all look so smooth and effortless.
“Shadowlands”, as many will know from the Anthony Hopkins film, tells the story of writer C.S. Lewis’s relationship and marriage to Joy Gresham, the American poet, her death from cancer and the effect this has on his Christian faith. Taking on the huge and demanding role of Lewis was Mike Dixon. His performance was a real tour de force; he held the stage from the opening moments and showed us the lovable and very human side of a man almost broken by grief. Playing opposite him, Steph Wilkinson was perfect as the sassy, sharp-witted American who breezes like a breath of fresh air into the cosy all-male academic atmosphere of 1950s Oxford.
The supporting cast were also superb: in particular, Peter Regan as Lewis’s easy-going brother Warnie, and two well-observed and at times funny performances from Colin Heathcote as the bluff Professor Riley and John Sellers as the hopelessly out-of-his depth Rev. Harrington. A special mention goes to young Alastair Cheyne who put in a quietly dignified performance as Joy’s son Douglas. The scenes in which he steps from the shadowy “real” world through the magically opening wardrobe doors (an ingenious bit of staging here) into the sunlit “other” world were amazingly effective.
The other members of the cast – Simon Denny, Richard Brearley, Antonia Giacomini, Mike Kilkenny, Lindy Conway and Margaret Collins – had much smaller roles but all contributed to the professional standard achieved.
As for the death scene itself; in less skilled hands this could have been embarrassingly melodramatic or mawkishly sentimental. Mike Dixon and Steph Wilkinson’s performance was both subtle and genuinely moving. There were certainly tears in the audience. A comment from one of the audience on Warkworth Drama Group’s website describes it as “the most emotionally engaging and draining performance I have ever seen.” Another remarked that it’s a play you still talk and think about long after you have seen it. The Drama Group recognised this and allowed time for an after-play discussion on the issues raised after the Friday night performance.
So, congratulations, Warkworth Drama Group, on a superb achievement. Although it played to full houses, it’s a pity plays of this calibre are not seen by a wider audience, and on a larger stage. This one definitely deserves to be staged at the Alnwick Playhouse.