Friday, July 27, 2007

His Dark Materials (Part I) - July 2007

Back in 1997 we saw our third Scottish Youth Theatre Production - it was "Into the Woods" and we really enjoyed it (despite a little confusion over if there was a second half or not). The following day the Glasgow Herald published a review which was far from complimentary, making a number of criticisms of the musical itself and the stage effects that the production had used, but making almost no mention of the performances. Feeling the review to be unfair we sent off a fax that morning to the cast saying how unhappy we had been with the Herald review and expressing our own opinions that the performance had been just as enjoyable as we had seen in previous years. A few days later we received a nice letter from the SYT saying that the cast had been really down after the Herald review and that our fax had been a real pick-me-up for them to hear positive reviews from someone unconnected with the show. I say all this because I'm now going to try my hardest not to produce our own updated version of that disheartening Herald review, while keeping to our policy of reviewing all shows as if professional performances.

Based on the best selling trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman and adapted by Nicholas Wright "His Dark Materials" had been a major hit for the National Theatre in London, so we went into this with high hopes. Okay, lets get the problems out of the way first. At an official run time of 3 hours this was way overlong, and when the actual performance runs a further 30 minutes this is far beyond what is reasonable to expect from an audience. There will always be problems adapting novels for the stage and I'm unsure how tied the SYT was to the existing adaptation, but this could have been halved without losing the central feel and themes involved. As a result the majority of the audience spent at least the last 50 minutes wishing each scene to be the last - not the best state of mind for appreciating some of the show's funniest scenes. To be honest, after the first 30 minutes the show had lost a substantial part of the audience as with a lack of humour and sharp dialogue to generate laughs the audience fell into a mode of sitting in silence, and then later when there were touches of humour the chance to create that kind of mood had been lost. There were nice touches such as the choreographed dance/fight and the marching scenes but much of the enthusiasm and goodwill of the audience was used up long before the end.

I admire the SYT for their ambition, and can appreciate how difficult it would be to turn down the chance to do this show, but it was a bad decision. To keep the attention of audiences for over 6 hours requires a level of entertainment that the material in the current format simply doesn't provide.

There are positive aspects to the production including an excellent realisiation of the daemons with Alasdair Hankinson's "Pantalaimon" and Kendra Williams as "Salcilia" particularly expressive. Kirstie Steele gives a hugely impressive performance as the show-carrying "Lyra" while Andrew Jones as "Roger", Sandy Howie as "Iorek", Katya Allcott as "Master" and Andrew John Illsley as "Will" all provide strong support. There were problems with some of the other performances, including some dialogue being lost to the music (even near the front of the stalls) but for the most part the supporting cast performed well. We were drained watching the show, I can only imagine how the cast feel at the end of it.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy large parts of the show but it simply dragged on for so long that it took any fun out of it. We've got a couple of days to rebuild our enthusiasm before we see Part 2 back at the Citizens, but the high hopes I had for this are now a distant memory.

6 Heckles

Anonymous said...

Having been fortunate to catch His Dark Materials Part one on thursday night, I am surprised at your comments. I whole heartedly agree that the play is overly long, but any script indescretions are not the fault of the cast. Strong performances were given by all characters & Daemons and not just the ones you have mentioned. There was a strong commitement & enthusiasm from all cast members to the story and its characters. It was an ambitious project, for young people who have only 3weeks to rehearse, and surly if the script is good enough for the NT, it's good enough for SYT.

Craig said...

What an achievement for young people and Youth Theatre! If we leave the script aside for a moment, we still have a huge show based on one of the greatest childrens stories of all time. A story which had the little boy beside me grasping his Dad in both excitment and awe. Surely, as theatre "for & by" young people, there is no better reaction to judge than the wide-eyed wonder of a 10 year old seeing his favorite book come to life in front of him?

Okay, I agree the 3 hours 30 min rutime is an epic - but I did for the most part enjoy my evening. (Although, I do have to declare an interest as my sister is in the production.)

I found it hard to keep up at times (Just when you think you're getting it, another character appears, another concept is discovered and explained) I would still highly recommend the production.

In other insider information, from what I hear from my sister, a further 10-15mins has been shaved off the production and overall pace has increased.

I shall be going to see Part 1 and 2 again this Wednesday, a true "experience" and a monumental landmark for Youth Theatre both in Scotland and Worldwide.

Statler said...

Anonymous - Thanks for your comment. I don't think we are actually that far apart in our thoughts on the production and I'd hope our review is clear that the problems with the show were not due to any lack of talent or effort by the cast.

The cast members we mentioned were ones that we felt to be particularly strong in their performances, and with a cast so large it's simply not possible to mention everyone (especially with so many playing multiple roles).

Your point about the success of the script at the NT is a good one, and something that puzzled me this morning. But when I had a look at some of the reviews for that production it was clear that even there the show was considered overlong. Having thought about it a little I think the NT got away with it due to the puppetry used for the daemons. The sheer spectacle and novelty of this will have lifted and excited the audience in the first hour where I felt the SYT production didn't quite grab the audience. The Daemons performances were excellent but can't be expected to compare with the impact of the puppetry.

Waldorf said...

Craig - I've got to say I'm pleased to hear that they're addressing the time issues, interesting that you say a 'further' 10-15 minutes.

I'd read the books 3 or 4 years ago, and hadn't particularly enjoyed them. So perhaps I wasn't the right target for this (Statler hasn't read them at all).

Yes it's a spectacle, and if that 10 year old was captivated by the magic of it all and learns to appreciate theatre then that's a result. However last night I was definitely an adult who was shifting uncomfortably in her seat for the last 50 minutes. I'd also say that the audience last night was predominately 'grown up'.

I also said last night that I couldn't face seeing part 2. Which in reflection was probably unfair, but I'm declaring it in the interests of honesty. I'm going to theatre for pleasure; not for work, not because I have a vested interest, or know someone in the show. After a hard day at work a 3 hour show like last night's left me drained.

I think if it had been three 2 hour performances I would have been much happier. After all there were 3 books...

There were good strong individual performances, and I don't want to detract from that however.

Statler said...


One other specific comment I want to add about Kendra Williams. As well as a generally excellent performance, she produced what was far and away the best portrayal of a corpse I have ever seen, in any production - eyes open and blank, apparently unbreathing and truly quite unnerving.

Statler said...

We've now added our review of Part II