Enough already! This dazzling and baffling staging of the first instalment of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ follow-up trilogy is yet another example of why prequels should be banned.
It goes like this. An author creates a parallel world that people love: in Pullman’s case, a genuinely visionary landscape, where your standard teenage quest for experience roams from the spires of Oxford University to the wild, witch-inhabited Arctic night. The fans can’t get enough of it. And then they come: the baffling back-stories, the spurious spin-offs, too much damn information…
At least this fluent and visually beautiful show from Nick Hytner’s Bridge Theatre is neither cynical nor a car crash. It’s sometimes batshit but never boring. Its good and bad qualities stem from Bryony Lavery’s pedestrian adaptation of a book which is phenomenally hard to stage. ‘The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage’ revolves around two kids and a six-month-old baby, and has a plot that unravels madly – mostly on a canoe on a flooded Thames – with so many thrills, spills and mythical bit parts, even the fans argue about WTF it means.
I especially loved the immersive design on show here. Broken trees, buildings and waves ripple across the flats and into the depths of the stage, creating a haunting sense of depth, movement, danger, and a world in flux. All praise to Bob Crowley, Luke Halls and Jon Clark (set, video and lighting): I could have watched their work all night, and basically did. The young lead actors are also excellent. Hytner ‘discovered’ James Corden when he staged ‘The History Boys’ at the National, and in Samuel Creasy – who plays Malcolm Polstead, the 12-year-old son of a pub landlord and the story’s accidental hero – we meet a young star with many of Corden’s qualities: genial, down-to-earth, relatable, funny. He’s a reliable anchor for the freewheeling madness all around him in the production, with Hytner co-directs with Emily Burns and James Cousins. Ella Dacres also gives a sharp turn as his teenage companion, Alice: imagined as a streetwise and neglected Londoner. Oh: and there’s a real baby too, Adiyah Ijaha, so insanely cute and well-behaved I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mini baby boom near Tower Bridge next summer.
Seriously though, what’s at stake dramatically in this story – in all Pullman’s stories – is the relationship of humans and their souls, which are made visible in the figure of personal ‘daemons’, animal-spirit-companions which flutter, twine and curl about their humans. Here, that’s strong stuff: the villain is an abusive scientist called Gerard Bonneville who preys on young girls and hates and abuses his own daemon. There is danger and depth and tonnes of dramatic potential here but it’s never realised. Bonneville is played a bit chinlessly by Pip Carter; his giggling hyena daemon has moments of menace and power but the puppet daemons are pretty disappointing; they come over as nifty papery accessories with battery-powered eyes, not souls in torment or in flight. The tone of sexual threat is also awkwardly handled: not in a way that would disturb a child who was watching (they probably wouldn’t notice). But kids and parents deserve something more than odd flip-flops between unearned violence and ‘don’t try this at home’ messaging.
I would take older children or fans to see this and be confident they’d find something to enjoy and to argue about afterwards. But it’s no ‘War Horse’, and certainly no ‘Northern Lights’.