His Dark Materials @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingam

cast list
Amy McAllister, Nick Barber, John Hodgkinson, Christopher Ettridge, Daniel Brocklebank, Tim Kightley, Thomas Aldridge, Nicholas Asbury, Charlotte Asprey, Gerard Carey, Ian Conningham, Emma Manton, Minnie Crowe, Josie Daxter, Geoffrey Lumb, Ben Thompson

directed by
Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile
Running over the course of two evenings and six hours of stage time, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company have woven together an interpretation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy that is epic both in terms of time frame and production values.

Following their major winter production, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the company have collaborated with the West Yorkshire Playhouse on another story of childhood innocence and fantasy, this time much more ambitious in its storytelling and theme.

Where C.S. Lewis’ allegory was the perfect pantomime substitute for the theatre, His Dark Materials is a much more complicated animal, considering its subject matter and adaptability to stage, but with striking visuals and a faithful adaptation there is much to enjoy.
His Dark Materials is set in an alternative world, similar to our own, where witches and talking bears roam the landscape and human souls take shape outside of their bodies in the form of daemons and ethereal dust.

The action takes place around the principal character, Lyra Belacqua (Amy McAllister), an orphaned tomboy living at Jordan College in an alternate Oxford reminiscent of Victorian England. Life is simple for her until the mysterious and charming, Mrs. Coulter (Charlotte Asprey), appears to adopt the twelve year-old Lyra and take her away to London. Here she is to be put to work for the General Oblation Board who, like her eccentric uncle Lord Asriel (John Hodgkinson), aim to find out the true nature of dust and daemons, despite the protests of the Clergy at the college.

It soon becomes obvious that Lyra is no ordinary twelve year-old and that Mrs Coulter is not all she seems. On learning this, Lyra escapes, and whilst on the hunt for her missing friend Roger inadvertently becomes the object of intrigue for both Lord Asriel and the clergy, who chase her across their world and through a tear in time into our own.

As the stories begin to overlap and family histories are revealed, Lyra meets Will (Nick Barber), a boy from our world on the run from the police for killing a man who was chasing his missing father. The two set about searching for their lost loved ones, while Lord Asriel sets a plot to travel through worlds himself to kill the mysterious ‘Authority’ and rebel against heaven.

Original Sin, the essence of souls and the authority of the church are complicated issues to deal with in three novels, and to attempt it in six hours whilst still entertaining is no easy task. Therefore, the editing of the Carnagie award winning saga was arguably the hardest challenge that playwright Nicholas Wright faced with this adaptation, as with such a vast body of text, pleasing established fans and those unfamiliar with the story could pose difficult.

He appears to have approached this cinematically by frontloading much of the action in a first half that rattles through at a dizzying pace and then introducing more of the metaphysical questions in the second half. This works perfectly to some degree capturing all the tempestuous action of the trilogy and keeping the audience intrigued enough to return for the second instalment. By the second half the stage is set and characters established so that Wright and director Rachel Kavanaugh are free to deal with each theme in enough detail to provoke some interesting debate on the journey home. Delivering such a weighty series to an audience of expectant children and adults without patronising could have been reaching too far, but they have struck up an interesting balance.

The downfall to this great ambition is that although entertaining, the piece loses some drama from key scenes due to time constraints. The death of Will’s father becomes much less significant and theatrical than it could have been in a condensed version. Similarly, the revelation that Lyra is in fact the daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter also lacks the impact and tension that it might have had in a production less faithful to the text. This detracts from some of the key characters and Mrs Coulter especially loses a great deal of the multifaceted nature she has in the novel despite Charlotte Asprey’s solid performance.

This sacrifice is necessary to allow the audience to focus on the principal character and Wright and Kavanaugh have been rewarded by a spirited performance from Amy McAllister who, following on from her impressive role in The Rep’s version of Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea, gives her character a tremendous sense of warmth and depth that distinguishes Lyra from the sickly sweet C.S. Lewis creations. When reunited with her friend Roger in Purgatory the playfulness of McAllister shines through, but she never allows the audience to forget that these are young adults who are dealing with real life problems, though in an extraordinary setting.

Though McAllister and Barber head the cast, each member works tirelessly in a number of roles and must be applauded for such a gruelling amount of stage time undertaken. Christopher Ettridge and Ian Conningham stand out for their range of key characters, with the latter adding a much needed comic touch to lighten the subject matter as the diminutive, Lord Roke, a role that contrasts with his austere and imposing priest, Fra Pavel.

The clandestine atmosphere of Pavel and his associates is in-keeping with the trilogies moody tone, with eerie lighting setting their meetings, making a stark contrast to the bright and carefree scenes with Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. These expensive daemon puppets roam the stage behind their masters and move with such realism that it is easy to forget the puppeteer operating them from behind. A great effort has been made to keep ‘reality’ from the audiences mind and the set is kept minimalist, with doors and walls sliding on and off stage and a large video screen dropping down for Lord Roke’s battle reports towards the plays close.

This is a very modern tale in the vein of classic storytelling and Wright has been sure to keep the structure simple to ensure the right questions are asked. Certainly challenging for younger audience members and novices to Pullman’s world and entertaining enough for those looking for some good old fashioned fantasy escapism.

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