It is astonishing and refreshing to find a play in the West End that opens with a lecture on Christianity. William Nicholson’s Shadowlands begins with the house lights up and Charles Dance, as C.S. Lewis, tackling that age-old conundrum: if there is a God of Love, why does he permit so much suffering? At the end of the play, he returns to the same subject, but this time his words are charged with all the sorrow he has been through.
And that is the draw of this 1989 play: it appeals to both head and heart. It tells a strange and moving love story but it also grapples with fundamental questions of faith and, in so doing, touches on the raw fury and incomprehension that anyone who has been bereaved may go through. It can also, as Michael Barker-Caven’s delicate revival reveals, be unexpectedly funny.
The love story is that of Lewis and Joy Gresham and part of the fun, for a piece of drama, is to revel in their demonstration of the maxim that opposites attract. At the outset of the play he is a renowned author and academic, a dry old bachelor living in 1950s Oxford. He writes with intellectual passion on the subjects of pain and injustice, but personally he has immured himself safely behind a wall of books. His emotional and physical reticence, we learn, is partly a defence system he has put up since the death of his mother when he was a boy. Gresham, on the other hand, is an American correspondent of his: a poet, a wife, a mother and as outspoken as they come. When she visits him, her abrasive directness and caustic wit knock him straight out of the comfort zone he has so carefully maintained.
The play touchingly and comically shows these two strong-willed individuals falling helplessly in love. But the great and sorry irony of the piece is that, just as the two of them find love, they lose it, when she falls prey to cancer. Having finally allowed himself to feel, Lewis has his feelings trampled underfoot.
Dance, lean, dry and authoritative, is immensely touching as he shows this unyielding individual gradually giving in to love. At his first meeting with Joy, he finds himself giving an involuntary little smile: it is like suddenly spotting a leaf on a dry,
old twig. As his feelings grow, in spite of his protestations, his body language gives him away. It is a real delight to see this austere, gangly frame become almost
kittenish, as Dance jangles his keys nervously in his pockets and develops a spring in his step. His grief too is powerfully physically expressed: he shrinks into a wretched, numb solidity, in stark contrast to the lightness he had acquired.
Janie Dee matches him with a wonderful performance as Gresham. Funny, tart, outrageous, she seems to light up the stage when she walks on to it. With the tilt of her chin and the firmness of her step, she catches her character’s pushiness but also her very attractive honesty and deep warmth, so that the play seems empty when she is not in it.
Barker-Caven’s production sometimes lapses into sentimentality, which is a shame, since one of the strengths of the play is that it demonstrates how love can be intellectual as well as physical, and does not always conform to romantic stereotype. But it finds the heart of the story, and fine supporting performances by John Standing as a crusty old professor and Richard Durden as Lewis’s bachelor brother, both affected by events, emphasise the point that there is no defence against the pain of loss.