Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Thursday, January 15, 2004
Darkness Visible 2
I love the National on London's South Bank. I reckon it’s my favourite theatre. OK, the concrete complex is so naff and seventies-ugly on the outside you're not surprised Doctor Who was once filmed here, on the grounds it looked like a prison camp of the future, but inside there's a whole different show going on.

There are crush-bars which are anything but, a couple of decently-priced caffs, free live jazz in the light and airy foyer, the second-best theatre bookshop in the country; and, oh yes, some of the most cracking stage productions you'll catch anywhere (as well as the odd turkey periodically vanishing up its own arts).

If I have one problem, it’s the braying brats who canter up here on school trips, or with Mummy and Daddy for their annual theatrical treat. I have a theory about this. Because the National Theatre is subsidised, and shoves on "serious" drama, it’s looked upon as vaguely "edju-kayshun-al". And that's why liberal, middle-class parents take Jemma and Justin here, rather than up to the nasty West End, which is where they really want to go, and where Jem would be on crack, and Justin on the game, before the end of Act One.

Don't misunderstand me: I have nothing against children. Apparently I was one myself once. But those Victorians had it right: children should be seen and not heard. No, let me go even further than that. Children should be seen only up chimneys and down coal-mines.

You could see and hear kiddies a-plenty in the National foyer last night for the second half of His Dark Materials, the dramatisation they said could never be made of the cult kid-adult crossover and the nation's third best-loved book. Heaven knows what it would be like if they ever get around to dramatising anything by That Woman, but the Uzi's already been ordered, and my place on Waterloo Bridge staked out.

The kiddies soon shut up as the lights went down however. I've always thought the Dark Materials a bit po-faced and over-rated, achieving in three books what could have been accomplished in two, but the National production had me – and the kiddies – hooked from the opening scenes in the Oxford Botanical Gardens.

Essentially, what we have on stage is the books with all the crappy bits taken out, and an injection of some sorely-needed humour. It kicks off with teenagers Will and Lyra travelling in search of their respective lost fathers through umpteen-and-one parallel universes. It ends as a literally cosmic struggle to defeat a corrupt Church, and topple a gone-gaga God from his throne, oust him from his kingdom, and, in its place, establish a Republic of Heaven.

For someone who was taught by Jesuits, and who always thought Satan got the bum deal in Paradise Lost, that idea has obvious appeal for me. It's no wonder the Association of Christian Teachers has declared holy war against the books and plays, complaining, among other things, about their touching depiction of two gay angels in a long-standing and monogamous relationship.

Meaty metaphysics and Christian cant aside, Materials is, at its simplest, a rip-roaring, dark and epic, adventure story set in richly-imagined and fantastically-realised alternative worlds, where heart-broken witches fly alongside Zeppelins, Texan balloonists go to the aid of armoured, talking polar bears, and Timothy Dalton comes over all Indiana Jones as he attempts to storm the bulwarks of Heaven.

Central to the plot is the idea that we all have our own personal daemon, hanging around us at all times. These daemons, or souls, take the form of animals – a cat, a golden monkey, a venomous snake or reptile if you're working for Mother Church – and they're superbly realised as delicately-fashioned paper puppets, hovering around the actors, and manipulated by operators clad in black to the point of invisibility.

But above all else, what's already made Materials for me the Theatrical Event of 2004 (and yeah, yeah, I know it's only January and we've got The Producers to come in November) is its staging (twenty-plus different sets – and then I stopped counting). Making full use of the Olivier's drum-revolve stage, the only one of its kind in the world, the stage is one minute the cluttered study of some fusty Oxford don, and the next a mad-scientist laboratory from a 1930s Frankenstein movie; an idyllic woodland setting becomes a storm-wracked plain of stones; and a Mediterranean seaside town is transformed effortlessly into a mist-shrouded Land of the Dead, guarded by vengeful Harpies. This must be the only production I've ever seen in my life when the final bows were given not to the cast, not even to the stars, but quite deservedly to the entire backstage crew.

His Dark Materials is one of the most invigorating and gob-smacking theatrical events I've ever been to in my life (and I've been to a few, my dears), something which is going to be talked about in years to come. Most of the run is sold out, and its technical complexity means it's doubtful it'll ever transfer to the West End, but there are already rumours that the National might be bringing it back, if not this Chr***mas, then the next. If they do, grab the tickets the minute they come on sale. And tell them a Stranger sent you.