9 December 2021

“The Book of Dust” is the prequel to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.  The latter was staged by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre in 2004 (which I didn’t see), and, apparently, it was very good.  “La Belle Sauvage” is the first part of “The Book of Dust” and takes place when Lyra is a newborn.  I read “His Dark Materials” and thought it was a bit so-so, but banked on this production being spectacular because of how much can be done with projections and puppets these days.

Bob Crowley’s design is nothing short of magical.  As I’d guessed, there is hardly any set on stage:  most of the scenery is achieved with projections, and it works a treat.  Set changes are instantaneous, water is engulfing, the realism is cranked up all the way up.  I could’ve sat there and just watched the scenes with no actors on stage.

If you’re not familiar with this trilogy’s universe, all humans have daemons, which are animals they are coupled with (and, by some accounts, are externalisations of their souls).  Barnaby Dixon’s puppets are engineering marvels.  And yet…  For the majority of the ensemble, their daemons don’t speak, so those puppets are attached to the bodies of their humans.  I really liked that because it was pretty streamlined (the lemur, the lemur was so cool!).  For the main characters, because their daemons speak, the puppets were manned and voiced by separate actors.  I understand the necessity of it, but it didn’t work for me…  Half the time the actors were crouching and trying to be both visible and invisible…  It’s a personal preference, but I think I would’ve liked larger disproportionate animals but upright actors.

As for the acting of the human cast and the play itself, it was a huge disappointment.  The play is dry, and it felt like every nuance has been sucked out of it.  It also felt like it was targeting kids in how cheesy and borderline panto it was in a few places.  The toy helicopter made my eyes roll so far back, I wasn’t sure they’d flip back to finish watching the show.  The witch was less of graceful mystical being and more of a budget drag queen.  There was absolutely no chemistry between anyone in the cast:  not between friends, not between enemies, not between rivals, not between family members.

John Light (who I adore on stage and need to see more of) has two small parts, neither one meaty enough to show off his talents.  Ayesha Dharker is toothless as Mrs. Coulter:  more of a head mistress than a menacing force.  Pip Carter as Bonneville is meant to be slimy and creepy but comes off as simply a touch neurotic.  Samuel Creasey as Malcolm is probably the most enjoyable of the bunch, but he has zero chemistry with Ella Dacres (Alice), which makes the whole adventure a slog.  Honestly, the most enjoyable character in the play for me is Julie Atherton as Bonneville’s hyena daemon.

Honestly, the play felt like Hytner’s vanity project.  It’s a beautiful production, but it doesn’t engage or entertain.  A complete miss from my perspective.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £0 (which would’ve been negative if not for puppets).

Covid Note: Utterly pathetic.  Masks are supposed to be mandatory in the auditorium according to the signs.  Yet there were ushers holding up mask signs whilst standing next to people with no masks on, but not bothering to tell them off.  About 1/3 of the audience didn’t have masks on.  During intermission almost everyone who stayed put took their masks off as well and chatted with people around them.  Sigh.

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