Review: His Dark Materials, Theatre Royal Bath Young People’s Theatre

Established as probably my favourite theatrical experience ever when it played the National Theatre, when I heard that the Young People’s Theatre company at the Theatre Royal Bath were putting on a production thanks to the Guardian’s Guide, tickets were booked to take in the day’s entertainment. The translation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into two plays is one of the most sympathetic adaptations of literature to theatre I can remember and they are amongst my favourite books, yet the way in which they’ve been edited really works, slicing out the more obtuse threads of the final novel and focusing on the harrowing journey that the young protagonists have to make.

Even without the magnificent set that utilised the drum of the Olivier Theatre to its full extent, this is an ambitious project for any theatre to take on, never mind a youth group but they have risen to the challenge pulling together a cast of over 150 10-18 year olds with more than 300 costumes and 100 puppets created especially for this production. The story takes us on a thrilling journey with Lyra and Will, 12 year old kids who live in parallel worlds who are thrown together by destiny on a huge quest which takes them from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the frozen wastes of the North to the darkest of all places as they both search for something precious to their hearts, facing a range of challenges: rebellious angels, soul-eating spectres, child-catching Gobblers and the armoured bears and witch-clans of the Arctic.

Ostensibly children’s literature, Pullman’s writing is so complex and multi-layered that it can be equally enjoyed by adults and in some of the questions it raises, which are admirably not shirked here, it really does posit strong opinions on the role of the Church in society amidst a range of issues dealt with such frankness and maturity that it really is recommended reading for anyone.

Leah Elston-Thompson, Caitlin Lees-Massey and Bethany Hocken share the role of Lyra and Jonathan Chorley and Theo Boyce that of Will as they age from 12 to adulthood with excellent performances all-round. The way in which the transitions from actor to actor was handled was particularly beautiful, making what could have been awkward seamless and organic. But whilst the leads are impressive, it is the actors who cover the role of the daemons who end up capturing my heart the most. In Lyra’s world, each character has their own soul mate who takes the form of an animal who is portrayed by a puppet and manipulated by actors who have to straddle that line between puppeteering and actual acting and here, Joseph Reynolds as the kindly Pantalaimon and Huw Allen’s vicious Golden Monkey were both simply excellent.

Given how much I loved the National’s production of these plays, this had a lot to live up to and I pleased to say that it really did match up well. Working with the strengths they had here in the enthusiasm of such a huge corps which allowed for effective scenes with additional witches and a very moving procession of souls towards the end, this was a highly affecting and astonishingly accomplished interpretation which also highlights the strength of the Young People’s Theatre’s company and who knows, some potential stars of the future.

 

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