“God” says Christopher Riley, donnishly, “has a severely limited intellect”. Jack Lewis, his Magdalen colleague, demurs with affectionate impatience, secure in a religious faith which borders dangerously on the smug. At first, anyway. The port circulates. Their 1950’s Oxford world is scholarly, limited, safe from women. When Lewis strikes up an intellectual friendship with an American correspondent, Joy, she hits this stagnating pond with a splash. Riley attempts his theory that only men have intellect – “animus” – women instead merely have soul “anima”. Sweetly, Joy explains that as an American unused to his culture, she “needs guidance. Are you being offensive or just stupid?” .

Wonderful. And perhaps that, in William Nicholson’s wonderful portrait of their relationship, marks the moment when C.S.Lewis, Christian apologist and bachelor, begins to lose his heart to this brave, odd woman intellectual who he was to marry and to lose within years to a savage cancer.

The 1990 play is an imagining, but based on close intuitive attention to Lewis’ own writings (notably The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed) It has become a modern classic. But this is by some distance the most arresting, intelligent production I have seen (beating even the BAFTA-winning film with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger). It is a perfect ensemble: Stephen Boxer as Lewis has what I can only call an RSC seriousness: you believe in his belief, smile at his almost childlike delight in the unexpected pleasure of married companionship, and are as shaken as he is at the loss of Joy so soon after his finding her.

Boxer never overstates, sometimes almost allowing himself to fade into greyness alongside the more flamboyant Common-room set. Amanda Ryan, a little more glamorous than the real Joy, has a vividness which makes the love affair real, and carries beautifully a sense of the her conflicted feelings – friendship , frustration – when Lewis agrees to marry her purely for visa purposes. Alongside them intermittent moments with Simon Shackleton’s Riley remind us of the tug of safe cynical academia, and there is a more frequent, wholly delightful performance by Denis Lill as Lewis’ brother Warnie. Unintellectual, suspicious of femaleness, gently and half-unwillingly he warms towards Joy and – in profoundly moving moments – towards her schoolboy son Douglas, who was to go on living with Lewis after her death. It is genuinely beautiful.

Alastair Whatley’s production never misses a heartbeat: it is simply enough set, but a moment of innovative staging when the child dreams of a magical Magician’s- Nephew cure for his mother is gently but unforgettably handled. Whatley and Anne-Marie Woodley design, with elegant economy. The only quibble I have is that the dons’ suits are too smart. In a West End production some years ago I have never forgotten the obsessive wardrobe care which went into distressing Professor Riley’s corduroys with a worn patch exactly – exactly! – where the Bodleian Library tables rub against one’s leg.



Is that a flaw? No. Nothing is. And the central message of Joy to her lover – the famous “that’s the deal” – strikes as sharp to the heart as ever. I saw it in an Ipswich matinee with a quiet-breathing rapt audience. The tour goes on: it’s at Windsor now, fittingly for the week of Easter (01753 853 888) and there are at least nine more cities before 30 July. Catch it.

tour details      5 Meece Rating
Rating: five


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