La Belle Sauvage: La Book Of Dust (Bridge Theatre, London)


Verdict: Pullman will repeat

Every new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s best-selling novels is greeted with huge excitement by his many fans.

How will they capture the author’s adventure, which races through magical worlds and parallel universes? 

And how will they bring to life the animal daemons, which are a unique expression of each character’s soul?

Nicole Kidman starred in the 2007 movie, and Ruth Wilson was featured on subsequent television series. 

But Nicholas Hytner, the Bridge’s artistic director, keeps faith with the theatricality of the puppets and projections from his 2003 production of His Dark Materials, back when he was boss at the National.

Nativity Scene: (l-r) Heather Forster, Samuel Creasey, Ella Dacres and Sky Young in The Book Of Dust

Nativity Scene: Heather Forster and Ella Dacres, Samuel Creasey, Ella Dacres, Sky Young, The Book Of Dust

That starred Anna Maxwell Martin as Pullman’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua: the girl destined to save the world.

Pointedly timed for Christmas, The Book Of Dust is the prelude to Pullman’s supposedly anti-Christian trilogy and is the tale of Lyra’s nativity.

We follow gutsy young Malcolm, the bright, independent-minded son of an innkeeper (more seasonal echoes), tasked with saving Lyra from the Magisterium’s religious Gestapo or ‘CCD’.

Once again, Bob Crowley’s design saturates us in the book’s dark, brooding dystopian nostalgia of a lost Oxford consumed in a Biblical flood (the Almighty may have serious copyright issues with Pullman when he eventually shuffles off this mortal coil).

The auditorium is surrounded by projections on screens that project onto a screen. These images show picture-book graphics with shimmering trees and seething rivers, as well as wind-swept fens.

As it did at the National, the puppetry stands out, with every actor having their own paper lantern daemon — rather like a personalised Christmas decoration (the main characters have theirs operated by puppeteers wearing woolly hats and dungarees).

But Hytner also toys with scale, as when Malcolm’s tiny canoe (La Belle Sauvage of the title) is caught in floods and he’s rescued by Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, in his miniature ‘gyro-copter’.

It is a great achievement to pull this off, but there are costs. We’re left with a frenetic performance, fearful of stopping to reflect. There is certainly little prospect of taking time to ponder Pullman’s gnomic revelation that ‘dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself’.

The characters in Bryony Lavery’s Famous Five-ish adaptation feel like puppets of the plot. Pullman sets up simple conflicts between science and religion, so the magisterium’s men (including Nick Sampson), are just straw Nazis.

At least the warm-hearted nuns who hide baby Lyra get more colour — including Dearbhla Molloy as the sort of lyrical Irish nun everyone likes to believe in.

For Lyra to get the high stakes of sometimes faltering situations, an actual-life baby can be interchanged with Lyra’s doll.

Samuel Creasey, a newcomer to the role of Malcolm is truly outstanding. James Corden II is a young actor just graduated from drama college. He’s a strong, cheeky, and lovable youth that transforms Malcolm who was otherwise earnest into an adorable clown.

As his gobby accomplice Alice, Ella Dacres is notable for her excoriating tongue, including one line worthy of a Glaswegian navvy: ‘The CCD are here with a stuck-up b**** and the nuns are s****ing themselves.’

The ‘stuck-up b**** in question is Lyra’s wicked mother, Marisa Coulter (Ayesha Dharker), who has been transformed into a Priti Patel lookalike — her officious character even gets to invoke ‘emergency powers’. Perhaps Sir Nicholas is trying to make a point.

It is inevitable that there will be solemn references to workplace sexism and climate change.

The latter reaches its queasy apotheosis in Pip Carter’s paedophile scientist Gerard Bonneville, who preys on Alice and tries to kiss her. Yuck! Parents may choose to not expose their children.

Elsewhere, I struggled to share Malcolm’s faith in John Light’s slightly drawn Lord Asriel. Light is hoping for a greater role in the next episode.

But my main problem is that neither Pullman’s story, nor Hytner’s production, feel as though they are covering any new ground.

Isn’t this yarn — about a child messiah, hunted by the authorities — basically a re-run of His Dark Materials?

Haven’t we all been here before . . . Have you got an alethiometer?

This Robin has a strict rule of not coming to Jousting

Robin Hood (Bristol Old Vic).


Verdict: Robin, the Merry Men and others miss the mark.

Bonnie Tyler’s 1980s hit Holding Out For A Hero sets the tone for this year’s Christmas show at Bristol Old Vic, which dusts off the story of Robin Hood.

A kind librarian has found a poster for The Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and an old book Tales Of A Forgotten Forest. An introverted schoolboy JJ (cuddly Dorian Simpson) becomes a time traveller thanks to the library.

He falls, with a bump, into Sherwood Forest, where the nasty narcissistic Sheriff of Nottingham, who makes his entry blowing his own, er, trombone, is clamping down on those who can’t afford to pay their taxes.

Fortunately, the world has moved on from medieval times.

Thanks to a kind librarian who has dug up a poster of The Prince Of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, and an old book, Tales Of A Forgotten Forest, introverted, innocent schoolboy JJ (cuddly Dorian Simpson), turns time-traveller

A kind librarian has found a poster for The Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and an old book Tales Of A Forgotten Forest. An introverted schoolboy JJ (cuddly Dorian Simpson) becomes a time traveller thanks to the library.

Robin Hood, a legendary figure in the world of sports and entertainment has now retired. Her ex Maid Marian, a great boxer and girl-to-be, is trying to avoid her. Friar Tuck is a female monk who has hit the ‘holy water’. Will Scarlet has become distracted by his fatherhood (his Dad-Dancing Scene is the highlight).

Somehow JJ forces a comeback of the Merry Men, if more in the mode of Ocean’s Eleven.

They are refueled with the irresistible soundtrack from the movie, and their old team spirit. Then they devise a clever heist to recover the dosh stolen from the castle vaults.

Bristol’s Wardrobe Ensemble’s rollicking romp ticks dozens of boxes.

It’s action-packed, punctuated by cheery sing-alongs of Bryan Adams’s Everything I Do (courtesy of the 1991 Costner movie).

It’s also tactfully right-on, without being uncomfortably in-yer-face. And it’s stuffed with wholesome lessons: that heroes come in all guises, including overgrown kids, girls, old women and dancing dads.

Because it requires real courage and will to help others, heroism also has its place.

You can see the fence and you can feel the restraint in the kissing (credit goes to Fight and Intimacy directors).

While entertaining, the film is enjoyable, and lacks spark. It’s as fun as Strictly Come Jeousting but it misses out on the X Factor. 

Georgina Brown

Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith


Verdict: Enjoy satirical family entertainment

The Emperor has a blond shock wig and wears an ill-fitting blue suit — and clown shoes. 

The Prime Minister is likely to be the subject of many jokes during this pantomime season. Vikki Stone, writer, leans towards the humorous in this uneven, but positive run of Aladdin.

Kate Donnachie (the Emperor) wishes to wed Jasmine, his daughter (Ellena Vincent). But she’s having none of it. Aladdin (Qasim Mahomed), a romantic, comes along and she must win him over.

The Emperor’s palace looks suspiciously like the infamous new Downing Street briefing room, where evil henchman Abanazer (an excellent Irvine Iqbal) issues diktats while barking ‘next slide . . . next slide’, and plots to marry Jasmine himself.

Much of the humour is aimed at the adults and the Boris Johnson satire doesn’t entirely gel. But Vincent and Mahmood have chemistry as the young lovers, the singing is top-notch, and the ‘magic’ carpet ride will enthral the youngsters. 

Veronica Lee 

The Emperor has a blond shock wig and wears an ill-fitting blue suit ¿ and clown shoes

The Emperor has a blond shock wig and wears an ill-fitting blue suit — and clown shoes