At a moment of the highest possible tension, a character shoots a puppet. What makes that not just exciting, but truly extraordinary, is that you feel the entire audience shudder. “We’re not men of violence,” cries accidental hero Malcolm (Samuel Creasey). “We’re men of imagination.” And that’s precisely what’s at the heart of this thrill-ride of a production, now playing at London’s Bridge Theatre. In their adaptation of “The Book of Dust,” the first volume of Philip Pullman’s prequel to his “His Dark Materials” trilogy, playwright Bryony Lavery and director Nicholas Hytner attach jumper cables to the audience’s imagination.
Hytner has been here before. In 2003, during his tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre, he directed a two-part stage version of Pullman’s celebrated trilogy with mixed results. Despite moments of theatrical audacity, much of the storytelling was heavy going. Part of the wonder of this new adventure in Pullman’s alternative world is how engrossing it is, despite the necessity for exposition.
Reducing an episodic 560-page novel to two hours and 10 minutes of stage time (plus intermission) is a dangerous idea. Since every episode in a highly plot-bound story can be granted little stage time, it risks making everything schematic. The triumph of Lavery’s deft adaptation is that scenes never feel like that.
Characterization, via her script plus Bob Crowley’s evocative costumes, of even the tiniest roles is instantly vivid. Dearbhla Molloy is a treat as an elderly, patient but droll nun and Pip Carter is marvelously laid-back and languid as devious theologian Gerard Bonneville.
But it’s Lavery’s notable use of humor that helps keep everything buoyant. There’s a fair amount of heavy lifting in the book’s philosophical debates, but Lavery banishes earnestness thanks to her drily witty use of bathos. Her adaptation is a textbook example of skilled translation for the stage. It’s not just a condensation; she adds characters and rethinks moments to keep a foot firmly on the accelerator.
Hytner’s ideally paced production pays the material and the audience the exciting compliment of never being overly literal. The beautiful work of his first-rate design team is indivisible: As dovetailed scenes melt exquisitely into one another, it’s impossible to work out which element is leading.
Crowley’s powerfully simple set of plain screens stands deep down the huge thrust stage, with the audience wrapped around three sides. That allows lighting designer Jon Clark and video designer Luke Halls to splash sharply suggestive light and ravishing, linocut-style imagery (inspired by the novel’s original illustrations) across it. The winning combination makes the audience feel as if they have fallen into an engrossing storybook.
All of that is enhanced by Grant Olding’s gently stated underscoring and Paul Arditti’s sound design, which together add atmosphere while never overpowering the work of the actors. The production elements are so unified, the momentum so unstoppable, that the climax of the first act, an epic flood, leaves the audience with that (sadly) rare theatrical feeling: breathless in anticipation of the second half.
In his professional stage debut, drama school graduate Creasey is defiant yet tender as the boyish (in every sense) 12-year-old Malcolm, who goes from nerdy son of an innkeeper to savior of the baby Lyra – played, to the audience’s awestruck delight, by a real baby. He’s matched by a sullen but sparky Ella Dacres as his adolescent rival Alice.
A purring Ayesha Dharker is a lethally self-satisfied Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother-with-malice-aforethought. She’s matched by John Light’s dashing Lord Azriel, droll and determined in equal measure.
If all that weren’t enough, every character in Pullman’s world has their soul physically exemplified by a daemon, an animal expressing their inner nature. Barnaby Dixon’s puppet daemons, literally lit from within, have an origami-like quality. Manipulated by both the actor and by others, the combination ought to clutter the stage picture, but with James Cousins’ movement and Hytner’s skill with actors in big spaces, the focus is forever clear. Like being guided by an expert cameraperson, you always know where to look.
For such an episodic story, the surprise of the night is the level of emotion the production ultimately engenders. It’s a tribute as much to Lavery and Hytner’s glowing work as it is to Pullman’s tale that after the excitements of the epic life-and-death journey, the ending, which could risk sentimentality, turns out to be redolent of the best classic work built around young characters: It’s as satisfying for parents as it is for children.