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His Dark Materials (Birmingham & tour)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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How do you turn three volumes of intricate plots, action, sadness, adventure, religious critique and literary references to Milton, Homer, Wagner, Tolkien and Icelandic sagas into good theatre? Rachel Kavanaugh clearly knows. She has here directed two excellent plays from Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s iconic His Dark Materials trilogy of novels.

I will not attempt to outline the labyrinthine plots here but any fans will, I’m sure, be happy with how faithful to the original (without being slavish) this is. The first part introduces the key characters and more. Amy McAllister is a wonderful Lyra, from her innocence moving towards experience to her lovely Oxfordshire accent. Will Parry is beautifully played by Nick Barber, perfectly communicating his grudging acceptance of strange worlds and of his own abilities and history.

John Hodgkinson returns once more to the REP stage and gives powerful performances as Lord Asriel (cold charm and intellect) and as Lee Scoresby (bluff Texan sharpshooter). Charlotte Asprey’s Mrs Coulter is strangely subdued in Part 1 but grows in confidence and sex appeal in Part 2.

Of particular note from the remaining cast are: Nicholas Asbury, moving and engaging as Jopari, calm and a born leader as John Faa; Timothy Kightley, both boo-hiss baddy as the President of the Consistatorial Court and sympathetic loser as Master of Jordan; Christopher Ettridge, a conniving Lord Boreal; Geoffrey Lumb, a powerful but always morose Iorek Byrnison; and, finally all of the Daemons (Emma Manton and Gerard Carey, in particular).

The stage sets are marvellous, the use of a couple of tables amazing, the puppetry excellent throughout with particular pleasure delivered by the Gallivespians, the latter delivering consistent laughter as did the two campest angels ever (with a nod to Pet Shop Boys videos) played by Ben Thompson and Daniel Brocklebank.

Each play stands on its own and could be enjoyed as such but seeing the two in sequence delivered all of the classic but often overlooked elements of theatre: passion, tears, adventure, spectacle, laughter and a degree of intelligence. The production moves on to Salford, Oxford, Bromley, Northampton and Edinburgh before completion of the run at the co-producing West Yorkshire and I would strongly recommend taking it in.

- Ted Heath


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