His Dark Materials, National Theatre Olivier, London

A tough assignment, but they pull it off
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The Independent Culture

It's been an arduous journey, but Lyra and Will wouldn't settle for anything less. Philip Pullman's trilogy of metaphysical adventure novels has finally made its stage debut.

A coming-of-age story with a difference, Pullman's irreligious universe of parallel worlds and humans that are ultimately stronger than their creator, has enraged a few and enchanted many. Nicholas Wright took on a mighty task adapting what many fans will maintain is untouchable material. Did he stay true to its spirit? Well, yes and no. With three hefty volumes condensed into two three-hour chunks, naturally much is excised.

But Pullmanites may struggle most with the tinkerings Wright has made to their favourite characters and he has the cheek to re-write Lyra and Will as 20-somethings - in the book they are no more than teenagers. But once you have adjusted to another person's interpretation, it's clear that Wright's done a pretty faithful job. Inevitably, some of the magic is lost in the extra exposition needed to keep the story moving, but director Nicholas Hytner never slackens the pace and his actors, crucially, are captivating.

Anna Maxwell Martin, on whose performance much of the show's success depends, proves as bolshy and heartfelt a Lyra as anyone could hope for. Her partner in crime, Dominic Cooper's Will, is similarly persuasive. Patricia Hodge captures Mrs Coulter's malevolent love perfectly, while Timothy Dalton's gruff, no-nonsense Lord Asriel is a rugged breath of fresh air. Giles Cadle's designs, are literal but satisfying - a grimy bus stop for the Oxford that exists in Will's world, and the lights of the Aurora shimmer across the backdrop. The characters' daemons, perhaps one of the trickiest parts to stage, are delicate wisps of puppets, propped on shoulders or swishing along the floor. Hytner, faced with a mammoth theatrical challenge, seems to have pulled it off.