Friday, 10 April 2009

His Dark Materials - Birmingham Rep

His Dark Materials Part 1 & 2
Based on the books by Philip Pullman
Adaptor: Nicholas Wright
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: John Roberts

Philip Pullman’s books; The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass or collectively known as the Northern Lights Trilogy, have become world famous not only because of the gripping and epic narrative that lies within but also because on its stance and attacks on the institutionalised church which in due time sent shockwaves through religious organisations worldwide.

Unlike the recent film adaptation of Northern Lights renamed The Golden Compass for our friends across the water, Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation spans across all three books and condenses them into two three hour parts. Originally staged by the National Theatre over two consecutive years, Rachel Kavanaugh Artistic Director of the Rep has the unenviable task of directing this mammouth project which spent almost two years in preparation and two months in the rehearsal room.

Set within parallel worlds which interlink through portholes or ‘Windows’ we follow a 12 year old girl Lyra and her daemon Pentalaimon, raised in Jordon College, Oxford (not to dissimilar to our world) whilst her guardian the famous explorer Lord Asriel is away exploring the Arctic and the secret powers that the Northern Lights hold within...and it is through the Aurora and a long held prophecy about Lyra that sends her on an adventure into these new worlds. Adventures that will see her come face to face with Death, Murder, Corruption, Love and make her ask questions about life that no twelve year old should ever have to face.

One wouldn’t be wrong if you expected to see a full blown stage set, but I am glad that designer Ruari Murchison has designed a minimalist set of tables, benches and boxes which allow the audience to create their own picture, the stylised set also allows for the rapid succession of place and location to flow smoothly. This has also allowed Kavanaugh to focus on the epic narrative and keep the story the main focus, which at times felt a little laboured and flat but on the whole this is one of the most exciting and artistically inventive productions I have ever seen.

Nicholas Wright has done a magnificent job in adapting the books into six hours of stage time, but as you would expect certain storylines and characters have fallen foul of the old chopper. This generally doesn’t cause any real issues but one feels that if you didn’t previously know the story or the books then certain questions may arise, especially at the breakneck speed that the narrative zooms along at.

The main strength of this production lies in the stunningly created puppets by Mark Down & Nick Barnes of Blind Summit Theatre. These puppets are majestically brought to life by a skilful set of puppeteers and regularly steal the show from their human actors. Special mention must be given to Gerard Carey who plays the role of Pantalaimon, which is full of energy and vocally engaging from the off. Ben Thompson is also highly skilled in manipulating Mrs Coulters Golden Monkey daemon with all the subtleties of a real monkey at times it was hard to tell the difference. With laughter every time they enter the stage Ian Cunningham, Nicholas Asbury and Emma Pallant need to be congratulated for bringing the Gallivespian spies to life.

With some excellent central performances Amy McAllister as Lyra gives us a feisty and independent (or should that be naively stubborn) portrayal, her depth of emotion is stunning from start to finish and gives us a real tour-de-force to watch. Nick Barber as Will adds a new dynamic in part 2, packing a slightly more authoritative tone over Lyra and his love for her is obvious from the off.

Charlotte Aspray is simply sublime as the menacing Mrs Coulter clearly relishing the chance of being the shows prime antagonist and the production is all the more better for it. Thomas Aldridge should also be noted for his lovable performance as Roger. John Hodgkinson packs a strong power hungry punch with plenty of arrogance and status into his portrayal as Lord Asriel but falls painfully flat when he doubles the role of Texas Balloonist Lee Scorsby, even stating in the programme that he personally feels this is a miscasting and one couldn’t help but agree with him.

In a show of this size and stature one would expect music to play a vital role in creating tension and atmosphere and the music by Catherine Jayes does that splendidly well, but I feel with the size of the cast and the style of show that had been created that this would have been better served with Actor/Musicians rather than the pre-recorded music we are given.

Overall this is a stunning production, full of originality and inventiveness. His Dark Materials contains some of the best puppetry seen on stage. With a show full of laughter, edge of your seat tension and pathos what more could you ask for, well there is just one thing...What exactly is Dust?

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
His Dark Materials runs at the Birmingham Rep until Sat 18th April before embarking on a National Tour.
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