It’s good to see a maroon cardigan on stage at the Fringe. Add a plate of scones and a mug of tea and all is set for a snug armchair drama. I would therefore propose that you see Of Wardrobes and Rings as a choice literary tiffin, with one sugar.
C.S. Lewis (65) of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien (71) of Middle Earth meet for a beer in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford in 1963. Lewis, though, is in bad health, and takes tea instead. Their conversation is only interrupted by an American barmaid, Hattie (Meg Ellisor), who is sweetly fond of both men. “Jack” Lewis and “Tollers” enjoy a long friendship that goes back years: “let’s be like old times, shall we?” is Tolkien’s invitation, and it comes close, were it not for talk of wives, of principles (“bugger them!”) and of grief.
What’s said between them is of obvious interest and explains the immediate appeal of the show. A cartoon animation of the The Lord of the Rings has been proposed – and there is wild talk of hobbits with guitars. It is just possible that neither man anticipates the worldwide recognition that their fantasy writing will soon command, and so for the moment they wear their fame lightly and their tweed jackets comfortably. They talk of themselves and of their lives and Oxbridge careers.
David Payne, who wrote the piece, plays Lewis, and is a master of gently-worded reproof and irrefutable observation. David Robinson is Tolkien: straight-backed, wry, and with a precise, tempered delivery that hints at self-reproach and apology. The professors do not score their points but land them, exactly, with light waves of the hand and finger pointing at the air, though never at each other.
You might want more pulled out of the wardrobe, more of a battle of ideas; but better, I think, to accept what might have been, and to know that in Tolkien’s Eärendil, “words unheard were spoken then / Of folk and Men and Elven kin”.
Delightful, and just my cuppa tea.