Shadowlands, Cambridge Arts

Shadowlands by William Nicholson, Arts Theatre, Cambridge

Shadowlands by William Nicholson, Arts Theatre, Cambridge

It'd take a hard-hearted non-weepie not to be moved by this wonderfully performed, well-crafted piece. Yet William Nicholson's play, a dramatised account of an improbable but loving marriage cut short by cancer, is never mawkish.

It's full of feisty wit, Oxbridge eccentricity, tenderness and deep questioning. With Charles Dance and Janie Dee in the leading roles it's a stunning night's theatre.

Shadowlands is the story of the unlikely love between the Christian literary academic, C.S. Lewis - also known to millions of children as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia - and the American poet and radical, Joy Gresham.

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It started out as a television play (starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom), was then adapted for the stage with Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Lapotaire. Then Richard Attenborough filmed it with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Any major West End revival has therefore much to live up to. Michael Barker-Caven's production, which goes straight into London, will do much more than that. It began life as a charity rehearsed reading given in London by Charles Dance and Janie Dee. Their thought, care and commitment shine through.

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Lewis, having lost his mother to cancer at the age of eight, spent most of his years within the emotional safety of the bachelor life, living comfortably in the corduroyed male atmosphere of the Senior Common Room.

That Lewis should even agree to meet a visiting female admirer of his work is surprising. However he does so and they progress through an amusingly charted path to a deep friendship.

Charles Dance, so good in scarily controlled television roles, gives us a quaint diffidence as a crusty older man, hopelessly inept with the opposite sex, relying on old-fashioned good manners and forgivable oddity to be able to cope with a straight talking divorced American woman with a young son.

Only when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer does he come to face the truth of his passionate love for her. That she should suffer in this way makes him question his deepest Christian convictions.

The second half affectingly tells of the progressive illness and the three years of remission that enable the couple to enjoy a real if fleeting happiness. It's delicately done and without the close-up camera shots available, originally to television.

Janie Dee lifts even the most emotionally draining sections with her wry delivery of Joy's directness. With divorce, the threat of deportation, and now terminal cancer, surely, she suggests from her bed, she deserves a discount.

The two marriages, one an awkward embarrassing civil ceremony to keep the immigration officials off, the other a loving bedside marriage are particular high points in a finely tuned stage relationship which grabs us by the stomach.

Ivan Howlett

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