By Neil Durham
WORTH A LOOK?: ***1/2
WHEN?: Thursday 2 December 2021, opens 7 December booking until 26 February 2022
RUNTIME: 150 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)
The best thing about this prequel to His Dark Materials based on the 2017 book is the theatre debut of Samuel Creasey (pictured above right) who reminds of a young James Corden in the leading role as 12-year-old Malcolm Polstead.
- Read on for reasons including how climate change fears and Storm Arwen make the setting very now
Set 12 years before the His Dark Materials trilogy, its hero Lyra Belacqua is a baby who is being hidden by nuns away from her parents Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, who will be familiar characters to fans of Philip Pullman’s well-imagined multiverses.
As we write this, Storm Arwen means thousands of homes are without power and climate change concerns are high, so the setting of a great flood hitting the country seems apt.
La Belle Sauvage is the 1st book in a trilogy to be called The Book Of Dust described as ‘His Darker Materials’ in the show’s programme and it’s an appropriate description because there is seemingly more here to unsettle than in the original beloved trilogy.
Polstead’s school is visited by Mrs Coulter (Ayesha Dharker, terrifying in towering heels, pictured centre far below) who encourages the children to inform on those adults they suspect of heresy and being of interest to the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline).
It’s not the 1st gentle Nazi evocation as the brutal CCD officers wear striking armbands reminding of swastikas.
Malcolm’s home is the Trout Inn, recreated lovingly in the bar of this venue, and this traditional pub setting as well as the less difficult aspects of school life remind of the Harry Potter series.
Pullman draws pre-pubescent characters well and we enjoyed the initial sparring between Malcolm and his older, fellow Trout Inn employee, 15-year-old Alice Parslow imagined in kick-ass and no-nonsense form by Ella Dacres (pictured left above).
Nowhere is the darker theme more clearly personified than by Pip Carter’s seductive Gerard Bonneville whose daemon is a frightening, three-legged, almost permanently giggling hyaena.
Bonneville’s research into the ‘dust’ or dark matter that will be familiar to fans of the series is groundbreaking but his fondness for child abuse is disturbing.
Much needed light relief is supplied aplenty by Creasey’s Malcolm whose charm and warmth remind of Corden’s Olivier Award-winning turn in One Man, Two Guvnors. We also enjoyed Dearbhla Molloy (Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre) and Wendy Mae Brown in a variety of comic as well as straight roles.
Director Nicholas Hytner brought His Dark Materials to the National Theatre stage almost 2 decades ago and his vision here is once again beautifully realised. The way the titular canoe glides about the stage is magical.
The puppets used to sit on the shoulder or walk near the main characters to illustrate them in animal form is probably the most endearing and revealing element of Pullman’s world building but for us the story here was not quite as enchanting as the material preceding it.
We loved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at this venue in 2020 and hoped it might be matched by this but it wasn’t quite.
Those looking to immerse themselves once more in Pullman’s beautifully drawn world will welcome this opportunity but we had higher hopes from the storytelling than we felt was achieved.
- Pictures by Manuel Harlan via Facebook courtesy Bridge Theatre Tickets
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