Wednesday, 29 April 2009

His Dark Materials - Lowry Theatre

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Adaptor: Nicholas Wright
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy stunned readers and critics when it first emerged on the literary scene with its gripping and biting tale of alternate worlds, strange characters, corrupt theology, and theoretical physics. Main characters are subject to questionable morals, the whole Christian notion of the nature of the Universe is picked apart and characters that you find yourself caring about do die, forcing both the characters and audience to address their own spiritual and theological notions of life and death. It is also profusely entertaining and captivating and at the heart lies a fantastic story; a modern tale set within a mythical context.

As with any great book, it is always a risky business when attempting to do it justice on stage or screen. Nicholas Wright's six-hour adaptation of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, divided into two plays was first staged by the National Theatre in 2004 and has now been revived in a joint production between Birmingham Repertory Theatre an
d West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Wright’s adaptation begins and ends on a bench where we meet the two central characters Lyra (Amy McAllister) and Will (Nick Barber), sitting together but somehow apart. Throughout their ‘coming of age’ journey we discover that Will and Lyra are unwittingly caught in a struggle between good and evil and both have an important part to play within that. We are whisked through worlds familiar and unknown where they encounter fantastical creatures culminating in a terrifying visit to the land of the dead.

There is a ridiculous amount to get through in this six hour adaptation and it takes a very daring and ambitious director to tackle this most daunting of theatrical tasks. Luckily co-directors Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile are the women for the job and rise to the challenge impeccably. Their directorial creativity is undoubtable. This production doesn’t rely upon special effects or complex stage designs. It instead focuses on the characters, brought to life beautifully by the 17 strong cast, who work furiously to keep the magical allure of Pullman’s epic tale alive throughout. Designer Ruari Murchinson’s resourceful stage design is simple yet effective in complementing the imaginative and innovative direction. A handful of benches and tables are swiftly moved around the stage, supported by Malcolm Rippeth’s stunning lighting design, to convincingly portray an abundance of different locations.

Whether you are a fan or novice of the Trilogy, the storytelling in this production is exceptional. Despite the lightning fast pace, the story is
never lost and the cast have a huge part to play in this success. There are a few moments when some of the larger action scenes seemed a little messy and the choral choreography and fight sequences could have been tighter. However, the strengths of the execution definitely outweigh the weaknesses.

McAllister and Barber are exceptional as the central characters and their relationship from the outset is packed full of genuine emotion and heart-warming conviction. McAllister especially has an endearing charm as the young Lyra which adds a twinkle to her perfectly measured and solid performance. John Hodgkinson’s' imposing physical and vocal presence as Lord Asriel is mesmerising (although his attempt as Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby is a little less successful) and Charlotte Asprey gives an effortless performance as the sexily sinister Mrs. Coulter.

It is impossible not to be truly captivated by the sheer talent of Blind Summit’s contribution to this production and for me the puppets were the true stars of this show. Mark Down and Nick Barnes have to be congratulated for capturing some of the most breathtaking moments of the piece, through their creation of the daemon’s, Gallivespian’s and armoured bears brought to life by a myriad of puppets. What they lacked in height, Ian Conningham, Nicholas Asbury and Josie Dexter, as the Gallivespians, definitely make up for in their imaginative manipulation of their wooden dolls and impeccable comic timing. Gerard Carey also manages to manipulate Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon with a beautiful subtlety and sleight of movement and the parting of Lyra to her Pan as she enters the land of the dead is a heart-wrenching moment.

There is a lot more I could write about this superbly executed production and I urge anyone who wants an evening of exciting theatre to experience it whilst it’s on tour. I defy anyone not to be swept away and touched by this stunning whirlwind adventure.
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