PULLING OUT THE STOPS FOR PULLMAN
First things first: this is the most wonderfully evocative, romantic and dramatic bit of set-projection you will see all year. Bob Crowley, video maestros Luke Halls and Zak Hein, Jon Clark on lighting, take a collective bow. They write with light. So on a rippling river sweet-flowing or tempestuous, through a branchy, steepled and Prioried Oxfordshire, two children pilot a birchbark canoe on a desperate mission to save a baby. And we believe. Ashore, cobbles or grassland, a college quadrangle and the Trout pub at Godstow effortlessly rise around them.
It is, ironically, more of a staging coup than all the rather annoying lit-up chatty “daemons” which express each characters’ essential Id in the hands of scampering puppeteers. Though I do very much like the worst villain’s hyaena , with its papery head and nervous laugh.
For this is Philip Pullman’s fantasy parallel world again: after the triumphant Dark Materials trilogy a few years back at the NT, Nicholas Hytner (and ace adaptor Bryony Lavery) have got their hands on the first bit of the “prequel” story of the heroine Lyra’s birth. The dread Magisterium – a sort of 15c Catholic police state, familiar from Pullman’s rather dated paranoia about organized religion in the later episodes – wants to destroy her.
You might, in a woefully uncharitable spirit, wonder why a writer so repeatedly and Dawkinsly passionate against Christianity’s stories would write a fable about – er – a sacred baby who according to a “prophecy” is born to save the world from cruelty , and who is pursued by Herodish authority and spies. And wonder also why a writer who inveighs against CS Lewis’ Narnia would populate his river with similar old gods and witches , and give everyone a talking animal as a daemon. Even if he does add woo-woo scientific stuff about matter having consciousness and a scholarly divining device called an alethiometer (Lewis had mere old fashioned wands etc, clearly not hanging out with as many physicists and cell biologists as his humanist Oxford heir).
But never mind all that. It’s a kids’ book, a love song to Oxfordshire and a grand bit of storytelling in this skilful ,fast-moving and visually beautiful production Its hero is a young find too: Samuel Creasey, on his first professional show, leads with charming, stolidly nerdy brio as Malcolm, the pub landlady’s 12 year old son and potboy, full of heart and adolescent decency, drawn into a dangerous world as the icy grip of totalitarian prelates intensifies. Ella Dacres’ Alice is great too: shoutily fifteen, angry and contemptuous of Malcolm until in the timeworn tradition of older children’s books they become friends in adversity.
It’s lovely casting, and as chief enemy and sanctimonious preacher Ayesha Darker also does a fine spike-heeled ,smart-suited nightmare CEO-lady; Pip Carter is a villainous villain, with all the unsettling sadistic sexual menace Mr Pullman likes to add. Dearbhla Molloy as a kindly nun, and later an equally Irish Doris in a rebel camp, effortlessly steals every scene she is in.
So did the first-night baby, who while sometimes prudently replaced by a dummy and sound effect is often on, smiley and self- possessed and drawing aaahhhs and sighs from the audience which palpably hopes for another look. Even when supposed to be paying attention to mad stuff about the consciousness of matter, dons upset about research funding, or who’s got the missing alethiometer.
So Hytner and the brave Bridge have thrown genius at it, a big show in an edgy time, and as there are two more episodes to come Mr Pullman would do well to confide them to this crack team of interpreters. Because (how did you guess?) I found the books far leas then gripping, never could finish one for mere irrritation at not buying into the fantasy, but I rather enjoyed the show. Result.
Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 12 feb
rating four but the fourth is a design mouse