Explosion of released love is a theatrical triumph

Hugh Bonneville and Liz White in Shadowlands at Chichester Festival Theatre which runs until May 25. Picture by Manuel Harlan
Hugh Bonneville and Liz White in Shadowlands at Chichester Festival Theatre which runs until May 25. Picture by Manuel Harlan

The most explosive episodes in science emanate from energy tightly compressed and then spontaneously released.

Great drama is no different. Shadowlands at Chichester Festival Theatre sees the true story of literary and academic giant C.S. Lewis (Hugh Bonneville) reaching its crescendo when the pain of the loss of his mother at the age of eight and ruthlessly contained for much of his adult life is set free by the meeting with an American fan Joy.

Bonneville embraces the role of the author of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe with the natural ease and elegance of one who has spent his entire life preparing for this single and singular performance.

Perhaps he has. From the stiff upper lip of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey to the slightly bemused but kindly Mr Brown in Paddington, Bonneville combines a cerebral containment with a good humoured self-deprecation that were the hallmarks of the profoundly Christian and erudite Lewis.

The simple, sleek set does not hesitate to remind audiences of Lewis' pedigree - a library of books and a solitary lamppost are are all the clues required by aficionados of his magical fictional kingdom of Narnia.

But just as Narnia was a platform for sharing his faith with a young generation, so the Shadowlands - this world in which we live before we move on to the next and more powerful existence with God - is impregnated with that same sense of the divine.

William Nicholson's script which tells of this rare love between Lewis - known to his friends as Jack - and Joy Gresham (Liz White), has been dusted down for Chichester's first play of the 2019 Festival in the main house.

If at first glance it seems a tame almost casual choice, that is to entirely underestimate its magnificent emotional and captivating splendour.

Never has Bonneville owned a stage with such awesome humility as he rejects any temptation to err towards self-indulgence in a tale that oozes tears and pain.

Simply put, this explosion of released love is a theatrical triumph. *****