The Screwtape Letters Review

Park Theatre 8 December – 7 January.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Dramatising CS Lewis’ epistolary novel is a huge task, especially as it deals with now archaic Christian dogma. Fellowship for Performing Arts (whose mission is to present theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience) have made an admirable attempt, with some ingenious dramatic flourishes, but this adaptation by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske, although an entertaining entry point to the book for new readers, doesn’t quite achieve the magic of CS Lewis’ words inside your own head.

The set is magnificent, cobbled, up lit floor, a backdrop of piled bones and skulls, a rickety ladder linking the levels of hell and a comfy leather wing backed chair kitting out Screwtape’s office in hell. To emphasise Screwtape’s standing, the show includes a prologue based on “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” with Screwtape giving a speech at the Tempters Training College. This allows McLean to dive straight into the first letter from nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter without any further explanation, and works well. As Wormwood’s efforts at tempting the human “patient” away from the Enemy go awry, Screwtape gives a masterclass in setting up the small seemingly insignificant steps and actions that can have huge impact. He is assisted by his assistant Toadpipe – a wordless, animalistic demon who scribes and delivers his letters.

McLean’s performance as Screwtape is full of bluster and very, very theatrical. He has a mellifluous voice, rolling around those wonderful vowel sounds that only American actors can achieve when attempting an upper-class English accent. He portrays Screwtape’s emotional journey with ease, but is slightly too slick for my taste. In his smoking jacket, and with his mostly smiling delivery of evil instruction, he seems more like an aging playboy than a demonic entity – with only a few glimmers of truly satisfying evil coming through. Lewis’ words would be much more effectively delivered with the malice behind the eloquent charm more explicit. This would enhance the humour and drama of the piece too. Lewis’ wit is sharp, but delivered like this it provokes smiles and a few chortles rather than belly laughs.

The most effective moments were when Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight – a fantastic mime) became the human characters in the letters – adding soul and a sense of immediacy to the monologue. The final scene is a triumph, with the wickedness that I wish had been evident throughout finally shining through.

Lewis’ Christian views, like any late convert were strong and uncompromising, and don’t sit too comfortably in modern London, even with such a mocking tone, and, to be brutally frank, the idea of free will and morality has been explored much more effectively and creatively on stage since the novel was published.

The Screwtape Letters is entertaining but flawed, much like Screwtape himself. It just feels a little worthy, which is hard to say about a play starring a demon. The show is a little too long, but it’s worth hanging on in there for the final moments.