Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust at London’s Bridge Theatre is a whirlwind coming-of-age story

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bridge Theatre’s The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage: Broadcast by NT Live to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, from Bridge Theatre, London, 17.2.2022. (JPr)

Ella Dacres (Alice), Pip Carter (Gerard Bonneville) & Julie Atherton (Hyena) (c) Manuel Harlan

I was watching NT Live’s broadcast of La Belle Sauvage from London’s Bridge Theatre in an encouragingly well-filled cinema in Basildon: did I entirely understand what I saw, no, did I enjoy the ride Nicholas Hytner and his co-directors Emily Burns and James Cousins took us on, yes, very much indeed. I must say I have never read any of Philip Pullman’s books, but I had seen The Golden Compass 2007 film and the two series so far of the BBC TV adaptation of His Dark Materials. Well, there’s the Magisterium (a bit like the Inquisition) determined to suppress heresy and the realisation that there is something called Dust which seems like a world wide web of knowledge connecting humans with their souls which has a physical manifestation as animal-spirits or dæmons. The suggestion here is that they represent conscience – and even freewill – that could be a threat to the Magisterium. Into the mix is the significance of alethiometers; devices which only a few are able to read and are unable to give false responses because of their connection to Dust.

La Belle Sauvage is described it as an ‘equel’, rather than a prequel or sequel to His Dark Materials trilogy and as I see it deals with the birth of Lyra Belacqua the daughter of Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter (who both appear in the play). Lyra is commented on as a ‘second Eve’ but to me is a potential messianic figure challenging the status quo (the authority of the Magisterium). The later Pullman books will involve parallel worlds into which Lyra can travel which may or may not be paradise and Le Belle Sauvage is a canoe which carries Lyra – who is being hunted Herod-like – to safety and escape a great flood. Could the biblical connotations be any more obvious?

Playwright Bryony Lavery had valiantly attempted to condense what is apparently is a 560-page book into a two-hour play and what we get is the CliffsNotes for which it would helpful if you know Pullman’s original of course. Nevertheless, it works well enough as the coming-of-age story for the two central teenage characters who triumph despite the machinations of some despicable characters who include shadowy church figures and their enforcers, the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline), a sort-of secret police organisation.

Basically we watch Malcolm Polstead, the twelve-year-old son of the landlady of The Trout Inn near Oxford (the city that is the centre of the universe for Pullman) who goes from zero to hero. He begins at odds with the pub’s ‘pot girl’ Alice Parslow who is fifteen. Malcolm is always lecturing and explaining things and she calls him disdainfully ‘professor’. I won’t give too much away because you will either understand it – or perhaps not? – by seeing the play and/or having read the book. Against a backdrop of incessant rain, Malcolm learns more than is good for him when he finds out about the existence of Lyra who is being sheltered by the nuns he helps, then there is the discovery of a secret message destined for an Oxford academic and alethiometer reader, Dr Hannah Relf, part of an underground resistance combating the extremism of the Magisterium. At Malcolm’s school, the pupils are encouraged by Mrs Coulter (who is no one’s Mother of the Year) to join the League of St Alexander and to report anyone – including teachers – who contradicts the Magisterium. We soon meet Lord Asriel who Malcolm saves by loaning him his canoe and then the villain of the story Gerard Bonneville (with his cackling, malevolent hyena daemon) who with a predilection for young girls set his sights on Alice. Throughout the tone of La Belle Sauvage veers from laugh out loud moments to exploring some very dark themes indeed. When the river bursts its banks the nuns are swept away and the chase is on to keep Lyra safe and eventually find academic sanctuary for her at Oxford’s Jordan College.

Barnaby Dixon’s puppet design possibly worked better in the theatre than on screen because of the close-up camerawork of them and their puppeteers dispelled some of their ‘magic’. If they were in black as in Bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theatre, the puppeteers might not have been so noticeable in the shadows. This menagerie of dæmons (including a snake, kingfisher, lemur, and that hyena) were rather elaborate, yet extraordinarily fragile, origami figures, even if they are evocatively lit up on the inside by little white lights representing their souls. It was left to Luke Halls’s video design to provide what stage magic there is in Hytner’s production. His projections on Bob Crowley’s series of flats were inspired by the woodcut illustrations of the original Pullman books. With animated realism Hall – aided by Jon Clark’s lighting – brings depth and perspective to the stage pictures and atmospherically shows falling rain, the Trout Inn, a convent, a school, the hallowed halls of Oxford University, cityscapes, countryside, Malcolm and Alice battling the elements, and much else. Why can’t such inventive use of video be used more often for opera and ballet instead of expensive – and frequently unwieldy – three-dimensional sets? Also helping distract the audience from worrying too much about whether the plot makes a whole lot of sense was James Cousins’s movement which prevented a myriad of characters bumping into each other and Paul Arditti’s discreet use of sound and Grant Olding’s equally understated music.

Ella Dacres (Alice) and Samuel Creasey (Malcolm) (c) Manuel Harlan

Hytner cast James Corden in The History Boys at the Royal National Theatre in 2004 who – then in his mid-twenties – was a great success in the role of Timms, who I have seen described as a ‘joker, overweight’ schoolboy. I never saw him in the role but recognise Corden in the poster for The History Boys looking astonishingly like the genial Samuel Creasey who makes his professional debut in La Belle Sauvage as Malcolm. The connection? Hytner also directed The History Boys. Creasey’s Malcolm begins as something of socially awkward loner, exasperated at the turn of events he becomes embroiled in, but with the odds stacked against him succeeds in protecting Lyra in the end. Creasey clearly has a great potential in comedy and drama and is a name to watch out for.

Ella Dacres gives great support as Alice who shows herself as whip-smart, streetwise, and takes no prisoners having had to look after herself for too long even at such a young age. Over the course of La Belle Sauvage Alice eventually bonds with Creasy’s Malcolm and we see how loyal and brave she can also be.

In a hard-working company of actors frequently performing more than one role (as the list below of the cast shows) I feel sorry for not being able to mention everyone. Pip Carter is oleaginous and predatory as Gerard Bonneville, who is guarding some research on Dust. Ayesha Dharker brings a certain style to the devious and unashamedly unmaternal Mrs Coulter. Excellent support from Holly Atkins, John Light and Naomi Frederick and there is an amusing cameo from Dearbhla Molloy’s as the sharp-witted Sister Fenella who tells it as she sees it. And as baby Lyra, Adiya Ijaha is adorably cute and a wonderful calming presence at the heart of a such whirlwind story.

For more about NT Live click here.

Jim Pritchard

Writer – Philip Pullman
Adapted by Bryony Lavery
Director – Nicholas Hytner
Co-directors – Emily Burns, James Cousins
Designer – Bob Crowley
Puppet Designer and Director – Barnaby Dixon
Video designer – Luke Halls
Lighting designer – Jon Clark
Illusions director – Filipe J Carvalho
Sound designer – Paul Arditti
Composer – Grant Olding
Movement director – James Cousins

Julie Atherton – Hyena / Stelmaria (Asriel’s Dæmon) / Sister Paulina
Holly Atkins – Mrs Polstead / Sister Maria Therese / Witch
Wendy Mae Brown – Mother Superior / Prof. Cluny
Pip Carter – Gerard Bonneville
Jack Collard – Swing
Samuel Creasey – Malcolm Polstead
Ella Dacres – Alice Parslow
Ayesha Dharker – Marisa Coulter
Naomi Frederick – Dr Hannah Relf
Richard James-Neal – CCD / Drunk / Golden Monkey
Olivia Le Andersen – Asta (Malcolm’s Dæmon)
John Light – Lord Asriel / George Boatwright
Dearbhla Molloy – Sister Fenella / Doris Whicher
Tomi Ogbaro – Eric / CCD / Prof. Papadimitriou
Yves Rassou – Swing
Sid Sagar – Robert Luckhurst / Jesper (Hannah Relf’s Dæmon) / Charlie Boatwright
Nick Sampson – Lord Nugent / Envoy of The Magisterium / Headmaster
Sky Yang – Ben (Alice’s Dæmon) / Andrew

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