views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Fellowship
The Hen and Chickens
17th August 2016

★★★★☆

Publicity image for The Fellowship

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

As long-standing champions of pub theatre, we know that many wonderful things take place in public houses. It should therefore come as no surprise that a pint (or many) fuelled the imagination and worlds of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Set predominantly in the Eagle and Child in Oxford, The Fellowship brings to life the meeting of these two Oxford academics and their developing friendship. With both possessing enviable creativity and a talent for words, their discussions are a lively, unstoppable flow of inspiration and inventiveness.

At the time of their meeting, Tolkien (Henry Wyrley-Birch) is the more established of the two. Older, further on in his academic career, and wiser (or so he claims), he guides the young Lewis (Alex Appleby) and pushes him on his way to literary greatness. In this production at least, Tolkien doesn't provide academic tips on writing style or analysis (though there is a bit of chat about translating Nordic myths and Middle English); instead he encourages Lewis to imagine worlds, their histories and events. And once they have that, these worlds are as real as our own.

Despite being about two Oxford dons, the play is highly accessible and fun. You certainly don't need to delight in academic literary analysis to enjoy it. I would recommend familiarising/refreshing yourself with the work of Lewis and Tolkien though. While it's not essential, you will definitely get more out of the production if you know where these creative ramblings eventually led. I have read the entire Chronicles of Narnia but not since the age of ten, and there were a few moments when I was struggling to remember the characters to better appreciate the performance (I must be getting old).

As you might expect, the play isn't full of dramatic, hard-hitting moments, although a few parts are a little darker and more serious, particularly when religion is discussed. Instead, it's a series of conversations that prove to be inspirational and life-changing for both Lewis and Tolkien. For the audience, this means that there is plenty of laughter, such as these two grown men jumping on chairs to improvise scenes from the great meerkat battle that they have just invented. Any ideas where that led?

Both Appleby and Wyrley-Birch's acting is very strong, with both men beautifully encompassing the amazing inner and outer worlds of Lewis and Tolkien. Their facial expressions really help in this portrayal, with Appleby's eyes in particular showing Lewis's wonderment as his creative mind is unlocked. Their stage presence and physical movements are also to be credited (this play is surprisingly active). Notably, Wyrley-Birch does a great job at advancing at Appleby with a walking stick during one entertaining spat between the dons.

With bouts of laughter mixed with quieter moments of reflexion, this is an intriguing piece from writer and director Bryan Hodgson that has a lot to offer. It's an absolute must for any die-hard fans of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien (go to the theatre right now if that is you), but if you're not at that level of fandom it is still worth seeing. The examination of two literary minds before their great works have been published is an interesting idea which works very well in this production.

The Fellowship opened on 13th August and runs until 19th August 2016 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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