The first three speeches of Shadowlands promote Christian theology and satirise vegetarians and feminists. In secular, sensitive times, these stances might potentially date William Nicholson’s 1989 play about love striking the writer CS Lewis late in life. But Rachel Kavanaugh’s tremendous revival, while gently sending up the masculine academic Anglican attitudes of 1950s Oxford, focuses on the timeless crisis of grief as the price of love.
Nicholson presents Lewis as a theorist ambushed by practice. A childless bachelor who enthralled children with his Narnia stories, the celibate author also wrote popular theology about the meaning of love and pain despite minimal experience of passion and one long-repressed experience of loss. After befriending, aged 58, Joy Davidman, a Jewish American divorced single mother, Lewis was rapidly cast in the unrehearsed roles of lover, husband, widower and stepfather.
In a part previously played on screen by Joss Ackland, Nigel Hawthorne and Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Bonneville’s baffled charm initially muffles Lewis’s donnish distance from reality, but he makes the character’s emotional transformation vivid – in the final scenes, almost unbearably so. Joy, as written, risks existing as a loud note of American vulgarity counterpointing English reticence, but Liz White poignantly suggests the shock of being thrown a rope of hope that is then snatched away by fate (or as she and Lewis believe, by God).
Timothy Watson, as a snobbish, misogynistic scholar, and Andrew Havill, playing Lewis’s war veteran brother, deepen slight roles with vocal and physical particularities. A bolder play might have been clearer about which of the social circle of the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were forced to live in the closet. But Nicholson’s script is skilfully crafted: Terence Rattigan would have admired the way Lewis’s extraordinary life change is delivered via a show-stopping joke.
Though its conservative dramaturgy can make it feel older than it is, Shadowlands endures because painful loss will never date. Following Tim Firth’s musical This Is My Family, artistic director Daniel Evans’ Chichester regime has its second big, surely transferrable, hit in a week.
At Chichester Festival theatre until 25 May.