Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum renders magical Narnia in song

THE Royal Lyceum’s Christmas show The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe puts music centre stage, writes Mark Fisher

Director Andrew Panton and composer Claire McKenzie at rehearsals. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It was during a break in rehearsals that Andrew Panton noticed it. The director was sitting having a chat when he looked across the room. There was no doubt about it. The actors playing the four children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – James Rottger (Peter), Charlotte Miranda Smith (Susan), Cristian Ortega (Edmund) and Claire-Marie Seddon (Lucy) – were not behaving as recent graduates should.

Instead of studying their parts or having a quiet conversation, they were playing. Actually playing. Just like children.

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“It was like they were playing tig or something,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘It’s working!’ They were gelling, getting on and being siblings.”

Cristian Ortega as Edmund and Claire-Marie Seddon as Lucy share a scene. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The CS Lewis story about the four wartime evacuees who discover the icy world of Narnia on the other side of a wardrobe has that effect on people. Composer Claire McKenzie has never forgotten the impact it made on her as a child. “I remember the BBC series in the 80s when I was really little,” she says. “It was magical. I checked every wardrobe there was in friends’ houses.”

She has wanted to set the story to music ever since. Now at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, she’s getting to do so in style. It’s not just that the magical world of Narnia lends itself to musical interpretation and not just that this version, adapted by Theresa Heskins in 2009, needed a whole new set of songs. It’s also that she’s working with Panton, a director who puts music at the heart of everything he does.

“Music is so much part of my storytelling,” says Panton. “If there are no songs, there’s still got to be music. I’ve yet to direct a play without a strong score. It’s such a strong way of cutting straight to the chase, especially with kids because they respond musically. You can say in four bars of music what it might take two pages of script to say.”

He talks with authority. Not only is he artistic director of the musical theatre course at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), but he is Susan Boyle’s creative and vocal director and has worked on BBC shows such as The Voice, The Naked Choir and Children in Need. It’s a level of expertise that suits McKenzie.

“Some directors don’t know how to speak in a musical language to me,” she says. “It means a lot of my time is spent trying to translate what a director is telling me into musical terms. With Andrew, who lives music every day, he is more confident to use it boldly.”

Despite claiming to be a slow writer, McKenzie has been turning out soundtracks at a formidable rate. A graduate of the RCS who cut her theatrical teeth at Glasgow’s Citizens’, she was the Lyceum’s visiting artist last season. That meant working in rapid succession on everything from the Italian comedy of The Venetian Twins to the eclectic guitar rock of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a nominee for Best Music and Sound in the CATS awards.

“Last year was five in a row!” she says. “I’ve learnt to get quicker. When you work in theatre there are so many deadlines, you have to be quick. It can be really exciting if you make it a positive thing. I don’t know how Chalk Circle happened in that amount of time.”

This is the third Lyceum Christmas show she and Paton have worked on together – and they’re making the most of it. Having brought the house down with a medley of seasonal favourites at the end of A Christmas Carol and having delighted audiences in The BFG for getting multitasking actors to play instruments on stage, they are pulling out all the stops on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“I’ve tried to treat it like a film score, so there’s music most of the time to bind it all together,” says McKenzie. She is using world-music influences for Aslan, Celtic sounds for Tumnus, tribal percussion for the animals and icy, metallic sounds for the White Witch.

She adds: “The music for Narnia takes elements from different cultures without being specific to any place – it’s just that other world. It’s such a rich deep story that it really gives you space to write big emotional music.”

Panton loves McKenzie’s ability to write music that is both accessible and distinct. “She always surprises us,” he says. “You’re never going to get something where you go, ‘Oh, that’s a bit like that from two year ago.’ I love it because it’s accessible musically but it’s not pop, musical theatre or pastiche. You hear it, you absorb it, you want to hear more of it, but it’s still not like anything you’ve heard before.”

McKenzie accepts the compliment. “For any show, I want to take influences from different places but I still want to feel like I’ve got a bit of me in there as well,” she says. “I try and combine the two. So I’ll listen to some folk music, say, but I’ll never land on a melody or a song if I feel like I’ve just copied something. It has to have a little bit of me and I try only to write something that I feel is mine.”

Returning to the mysterious world of Narnia, Panton says it’s a show that ticks all the boxes when it comes to festive entertainment. “The adaptation is really great in cutting straight to the story. There’s no fat on the bone. And in terms of being a Christmas fit, Father Christmas is in it, there’s loads of snow, there’s a sledge, the kids get presents, a good-versus-evil story and kids as the protagonists . . .”

He has two ambitions: “One is at the end of act one, we want the kids to be deciding who they want to be: Susan, Lucy, Peter or Edmund. And the second is we hope they go home wondering where the next portal is going to be, checking under tables and looking in cupboards.”

• The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 28 November until 3 January