The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage
The Bridge Theatre, London

'The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage' review — Phillip Pullman's tricky prequel struggles to find magic

Photo credit: The Book of Dust (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Thursday, 09 December, 2021, 10:00
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Almost 20 years ago, Nicholas Hytner brought Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to the stage in a memorable two-part production at the National Theatre. So, it’s easy to understand the thinking behind this adaptation of Pullman’s latest addition to the series at Hytner’s new home — the Bridge Theatre. Unfortunately, it falls short of conjuring that same magic.

In fairness to Hytner, and to adaptor Bryony Lavery, La Belle Sauvage is a tricky proposition. It’s a prequel to His Dark Materials, but the next instalment of Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, is a sequel instead, and the third volume has yet to appear. That makes this particular work more of a filler chapter, adding in backstory to an existing tale rather than offering a complete and autonomous one. 

Of course, part of the fun for avid Pullman fans is spying the elements that will later become significant, primarily our future protagonist Lyra Belacqua, here just a baby, but also her parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, the growing power of religious faction the Magisterium, the all-important prophecy, the research into Dust, and the alethiometer.

However, it also invites comparisons, and here the show suffers. We don’t have a lead character as vivid as Lyra, nor armoured bears or hot-air balloons, witches (other than a brief glimpse) or windows to another world. Much of the wonder of Pullman’s creation, including some of the more mysterious and mystical aspects of La Belle Sauvage, is absent, and the philosophical debate is muted. Lavery’s dialogue is all exposition, though she does add some welcome wit.

It makes for an engaging enough adventure yarn – necessarily episodic, as is the novel, but sleekly presented. Our genial guide is 12-year-old Malcolm Polstead, who works in his mum’s pub but has academic inclinations. Samuel Creasey makes a very promising debut in the role. He’s a dead ringer for James Corden, with a similar cheeky charm, comic assurance, earnest determination, and tendency to overplay; there’s rather too much shouting and swallowing his lines. But his thawing relationship with prickly, traumatised teenager Alice (a fierce Ella Dacres) anchors the show nicely.

The young pair come to the rescue of baby Lyra when her enemies descend on her during a terrible flood, and embark on a dangerous journey in Malcolm’s canoe. The design solution to staging a boat chase is elegant and evocative, thanks to Bob Crowley’s screens which blaze into life with Luke Halls’s video and give artistic dimension to each location – particularly the priory and the inky-black river with its swirling depths. Alas, the daemons aren’t as well realised: they’re represented by insubstantial, papery puppets that lack impact.

But Lyra is played by both a puppet and a real baby – the latter an absolute show-stealer. It’s the most placid infant imaginable, happy to be passed around the cast, wiggling her feet as Malcolm comments on them, and touching his face with affection. In fact, they need the puppet version for the scenes where Lyra cries, because this is the most Zen baby known to man.

Ayesha Dharker is a stylishly monstrous Mrs Coulter, although her big dilemma is only just hinted at here, John Light is an imperious, man-bun-sporting Asriel, and Dearbhla Molloy and Wendy Mae Brown are excellent as the wily nuns. Pip Carter supplies real menace as the brilliant but unhinged Gerard Bonneville, who has all the silky charm of the cunning predator.

However, I’m not quite sure of the target audience here. It’s too simplistic as adult drama but far too scary for small children – there’s violence, sudden gun shots, stories of child abuse and attempted rape. As a Christmas show, it’s a puzzling choice, particularly given the author’s anti-religious sentiments, and it doesn’t really justify its transfer to this new medium. But it should certainly satisfy the Pullman faithful until the next of his books hits our shelves.

The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage is at the Bridge Theatre. Book The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: The Book of Dust (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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