A prequel to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy…
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage follows Malcolm Polstead (played by Samuel Creasey) and Alice Parslow (played by Ella Dacres) as they fight to prevent baby Lyra Belacqua from falling into the wrong hands.
The action starts at The Trout Inn, a riverside pub in Oxford owned by Mrs Polstead (played by Holly Atkins). Both Mrs Polstead’s son Malcolm and Alice Parslow help with the running of the pub, and Creasey and Dacres comically performed the petty antagonism between this twelve-year-old boy and fifteen-year-old girl. Both children inadvertently get tangled in the web surrounding baby Lyra Belacqua: Malcolm is forced to keep secrets to avoid the baby falling into the hands of the CCD and Marisa Coulter, while Alice is groomed by disgraced professor Gerard Bonneville (played by Pip Carter) and manipulated to help him get his hands on Lyra.
Within this plot thread, Dacres excellently portrayed the depth of Alice Parslow – her feelings of loneliness as a result of a difficult family history and the fear of a fifteen-year-old girl alone in the world, hidden beneath a tough and reactive exterior. Alongside Dacres, there were strong performances by Wendy Mae Brown, who played Mother Superior with brilliant composure and dignity, and Tomi Ogbaro, who was suitably unlikeable and spiteful as schoolchild Eric and suitably threatening as a CCD man.
One question I did have, however, was, who is the target audience of this production? The production design – a collaboration between designer Bob Crowley, video designer Luke Halls, lighting designer Jon Clark and illusions director Filipe J. Carvalho – was absolutely magical. The black panels of the Bridge Theatre stage were repeatedly dazzled with intricate illustrations to give a sense of place: the outside walls of the nunnery; a frothing, surging River Thames; a birds-eye-view of London. It almost felt as if I’d directly dropped into the pages of a children’s picture book. The magical set design was complemented by the puppets – created by Barnaby Dixon and Glenn Holberton – representing the various characters’ daemons. Creations of white cards with a single light in each of their heads, these puppets were effectively handled by actors so that the actors seemed to slip away and the audience could slip into Philip Pullman’s imagination – a world where humans and demons co-exist.
The reason for my confusion as to the production’s target audience was, then, that, alongside all these magical elements which would particularly seem to appeal to a festive family audience, the play did not shy away from darker themes. Alice Parslow’s storyline was particularly dark: one of her first scenes saw her getting sexually assaulted by two older male customers at the pub, a precursor to her essentially getting groomed by Gerard Bonneville, a character who would, in a later scene, describe scenes of children being violently tortured and murdered. Of course, there is a long tradition of dark children’s stories – just look at the Brothers Grimm – but this is just to point out that The Book of Dust might greater appeal to families with older children, or at least families not looking for a squeaky-clean, wholesome Christmas show this year.
Nevertheless, with its set design and satisfying coming-of-age story arc, The Book of Dust definitely felt like a Christmas show: I was awed by the production design and left the theatre with a warm feeling in my heart. My brain also felt exercised, as the production effectively incorporated themes of climate change with explorations of how power and fear work together in an absolutist state. But, of course, the real star of the show was the beautiful real-life baby playing Lyra Belacqua. I might have been wowed by the production design, but the real question everyone seemed to have in their heads is, “how is that baby so well-behaved?”
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage plays at The Bridge Theatre until Saturday 26th February. Book tickets and find out more here.