Young talent not kept in the ‘Dark’

'His Dark Materials' at The Maltings.
'His Dark Materials' at The Maltings.

REVIEW: MALTINGS YOUTH THEATRE ‘HIS DARK MATERIALS’, THE MALTINGS

To me The Maltings Youth Theatre doing their own version of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ was like the theatrical equivalent of someone covering Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in that it’s an extremely well known work by one of the leading lights in its field.

And like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy of books take audiences on a journey with many twists and turns, making the play adaptation of said trilogy a bold choice for the Youth Theatre’s annual production.

Recent years have seen them pull out some of musicals’ trump cards like ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ but with ‘His Dark Materials’ it was all about the acting, meaning the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down to the 75-strong cast, from the ages of nine to 23.

As well as picking a complex piece this year, director Wendy Payn also made the rather risky move of uniting the Junior Youth Theatre with the older Youth Theatre. This could have been a recipe for chaos but instead it was a winning formula.

In her first leading role with the Youth Theatre, Lucinda Lawrie was fantastic as the girl at the centre of the plot, Lyra Belacqua. Her character was a child with a mysterious and fascinating background and Lucinda’s on-stage demeanour was the perfect mix of leading lady feistiness and childlike vulnerability.

All of the human characters in ‘His Dark Materials’ had their own companions, known as deamons, and these roles gave the younger members of the cast a chance to shine, none more so than Christopher Maud as Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon.

I’d previously seen Christopher in fine form as Toad in the Junior Youth Theatre’s production of ‘Wind In The Willows’ and once again he showed he is an acting talent to keep a close eye on.

Pullman’s words can’t have been easy for the cast to master but Lucinda, Christopher and other younger members of the cast including Ewan Steady as Roger and Rory Hamilton as Kaisa all had a confident grasp of the dialogue and there were only minimal first night stumbles over words.

The younger leads and chorus were the perfect foil for the ‘veterans’ of the Youth Theatre, who have amassed a lot of acting experience in the past few years despite still being young themselves. Step forward Katie Hindmarsh and Oliver Payn as Lyra’s parents, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. Like their daughter, there was a lot more to these two than met the eye and although it would have been easy for Katie and Oliver to replicate the performances of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in the film adaptation of the novels, they played the roles their own way. Katie was cool, calm and collected with a sinister edge that cut through when required while Oliver too changed tack as Asriel revealed his darker side.

Another duo who have racked up some stage time at The Maltings in recent years are Sammy Reed and Paddy Flannigan who were responsible for ‘His Dark Materials’ most brutal moment when their characters Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison faced off. The battle of the polar bears was the play’s equivalent of Tyson vs Holyfield but fortunately there weren’t any ears bitten off, just a rather realistic heart pulled from Paddy’s costume.

Like many of his castmates, Paddy took on another role in the play and if Fra Pavel was in pantomime he would definitely have prompted a few boos.

Ross Graham did a fantastic job of switching personas and accents, playing The Master, Jopari and Farder Coram with ease and with a cracking Irish accent for the latter.

There isn’t the space to praise everyone, but four others who stood out were David Simpson as Lee Scoresby – he rocked a particularly fetching coat and had the American twang down to a tee; Patrick Davenport as Mrs Coulter’s daemon, Golden Monkey, who despite not having any lines, had a very effective stage presence; Frances Pattinson as Serafina Pekkala; and Max Manning as Will Parry, who came into the action quite late on but definitely made his mark.

The action in ‘His Dark Materials’ moved from location to location quicker than your average travel programme meaning as well as presenting a challenge for its young cast it threw many logistical obstacles in Wendy’s way. But she overcame these with some effective staging and terrific use of the screen at the back of the set which together with Paul Summers’ original compositions helped to set the scene. And the music also helped to create the different ambience each scene required.

The Youth Theatre have wowed with musicals in the past but with ‘His Dark Materials’ they showed they don’t need songs to hide behind. If the talent’s there it will shine as bright as the Northern Lights.