Review: Shining talents light up His Dark Materials

3 Nov 2012 @ 1.28 pm
| Entertainment
Fantastic fantasy: L-R Imogen Little as Stelmaria, James Osman as Lord Asriel, Anna Soden as Lyra and Rob Paterson as Pantalaimon. Photographs: York Theatre Royal
Review: His Dark Materials Part I, York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre
Venue: York Theatre Royal, November 1

Everyone who has read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was asking the same question: how could they transfer this dense and magical universe to the stage? We all know the movie version was panned by fans and critics, its star Daniel Craig sloping off into obscurity.

Through verve, creativity and talent, the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre both answered those concerns and eclipsed the film. The young cast largely succeeded in bringing the story from the world of imagination into the world of performance, keeping the audience spellbound for long periods.

Those familiar with the books were certainly at an advantage. I haven’t read them, and had to concentrate hard to follow the multi-threaded narrative, with its heroic cast of characters. That is by no means a bad thing, and if I didn’t pick up every nuance I was able to check back afterwards with my son Jack, an expert on the stories.

In such a complicated narrative, so much rested on the shoulders of Lyra, the girl whose extraordinary journey we follow through the evening. Anna Soden put in a performance as epic as Pullman’s story. She was mesmerising as the 12-year-old Lyra, feisty and vulnerable and funny. At a moment when a grand dame of this city is garnering international plaudits in Skyfall, you couldn’t help thinking that here was a worthy successor to Judi Dench.

Lyra and her daemon Pan

It is a tribute to the shining talents in this company that Anna did not eclipse her fellow performers. One challenge was how to portray the story’s daemons, the animals which act as physical souls for the people in Lyra’s world. This was overcome by the actors propelling puppets around the stage, with such dexterity and eye for animal movement that they enjoyed a true life of their own.

Special mention here for Rob Paterson, who was Lyra’s daemon Pan, on stage whenever the hero was, and imbuing his fox puppet with a scampering, anxious personality.

There were many more highlights, in both the terrific performances and the scintillating designs and costumes, which combined to even give armour-clad polar bears gravity and gravitas.

The one criticism was that this adaptation put too much of the books into Part I. The breakneck speed at which we clattered through the storyline sometimes sacrificed nuance and character depth.

But this is a minor quibble on a night when brilliance and artistry shone through His Dark Materials like magic dust.

Lyra is confronted by polar bear Iorek Byrnison (Tom Western)