Tintin is big showbiz news at the moment, thanks to Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s recently inked three-pic deal to bring the beloved Belgian comic strip character to the bigscreen. London’s Young Vic Theater was ahead of the curve with its staging of one of the stories, “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin,” which premiered two years ago and is now back for a limited West End run. What Rufus Norris’ staging indicates, however, is that film might in fact be the most suitable medium for a non-text-based Tintin story: the production strains to bring the graphic novel to life on stage — and only sporadically succeeds.
The specific tale staged here is “Tintin in Tibet,” in which Tintin (Matthew Parish), Captain Haddock (Stephen Finegold) and the cocker spaniel, Snowy, travel to mid-Asia to rescue Tintin’s friend Chang, who is reported dead in a Himalayan plane crash but whom Tintin believes to be alive. The action whirls into life with a madcap, disorienting opening sequence in which all the familiar characters from the stories criss-cross the stage, showing off an impressive array of musical talents. The carnival-like atmosphere is enhanced by lighting designer Rick Fisher’s bright pastel circles of color dancing along the floor.
We discover this was all the dozing Tintin’s dream when he’s jolted awake by the imagined sound of Chang’s voice calling for help. And before Captain Haddock can say “blistering barnacles” (for the first of umpteen times), Tintin and company are hopping aboard a series of jets to Delhi, Katmandu and points further east.
Almost inevitably, given the graphic novel format, the action here is episodic: there’s the nicely comic sequence in which the gang face Indian bureaucracy to obtain climbing permits and a sherpa; another in which Snowy (played with a lack of directorial imagination by comic actor Miltos Yerolemou in white plus-fours and a Harpo Marx wig) gets drunk on Haddock’s whiskey; then, in a sharp tonal shift, a scene set inside the crashed plane’s fuselage, complete with simulated dead bodies — a surprisingly scary moment for a production that advertises no lower age limit.
The show resorts — innovatively and amusingly — to theatrical interpretations of filmic language in order to meet some storytelling challenges, such as Tintin’s near-fall off a cliff. Actor Parish twists and struggles against a steeply slanted surface, with the audience looking up at his body as if from below — a stage version of a cinematic shift of perspective, beautifully imagined by Norris and set designer Ian MacNeil.
The more far-out the story becomes, however, the more prod struggles to meet its representational challenges: auds can clearly see the mechanism behind a “levitating” Buddhist monk, and the yeti who is finally discovered to be sheltering Chang is played by an actor in a disappointingly literal 8-foot-tall monkey suit.
The show is dominated by a sense of reverence toward the material that will surely please Tintin fans. All the familiar names and characters are mentioned, and the treasured values — friendship, bravery, heroism — honored. Parris is excellent as the carrot-quiffed title character: his boyish face and wide-eyed demeanor capture Tintin’s earnestness and oddly ageless quality.
Unlike most British holiday entertainments, such as pantomime, which are infused with entendre and irony, this is played ramrod-straight. That approach is doubtless understandable given recent controversies about the Tintin series’ outdated colonial politics (the U.K.’s Commission for Racial Equality protested the “hideous racial prejudice” of “Tintin in the Congo,” leading several major Brit bookstore chains to move the book to its adult section and sell it with a disclaimer), and a homoerotic subtext that hovers just below the surface.
Any wink-nudge might have unleashed these suppressed meanings and disrupted the story’s family-friendly equilibrium. But it might also have added a bit more fun.