National Theatre at the Olivier
Pratchett's novel, here adapted by Mark Ravenhill, is a heady brew of fantasy, anthropology and folk philosophy. It ranges wide, and even the Olivier struggles to encompass it.
The Royal Society, a parallel world, a tsunami, cannibalism, creation myth and coming of age make for an eventful evening, and a huge cast brings enviable energy to a colourful and moving story.
Emily Taafe is the 13-year-old Daphne, an innocent abroad, wide-eyed at the brave new world of the Nation in the Pelargic Ocean. Unrough Gary Carr is a likeable Mau, the noble savage who joins her to face an uncertain future on the island. He adopts the trousers, she the grass skirt. When her father finally arrives to rescue her, the absurdity of Victorian society – King Arnold and all – is in stark contrast to the ancient and learned culture of the Nation.
But the acting palms go to Paul Chahidi's bitter and twisted butler who seeks revenge, and to Jason Thorpe's tourette's parrot, who ingeniously finds a sardonic comment on the action from phrases he overhears. “There's nothing a cup of tea can't put right, don't you find ?”, at the interval. This is Ravenhill, not Pratchett, apparently.
The special effects in Melly Still's spectacular production are stunning – more underwater action as in Coram Boy –, the necrophagic grandfather birds and the sozzled sow are superb puppets, but the musical numbers are Godspell/Lion King kitsch, in the main.
The young audience, many of them experiencing the power and potential of live theatre for the first time, were vocal in their appreciation. A muted cheer cum sigh of relief when Milton survives, a gasp when Cox pulls a second gun.
And as someone pointed out, this would be a good production for the more ambitious school drama departments. Compare and contrast with The Tempest.
The National's family shows have a well-deserved reputation. This does not disappoint, but neither does it bear comparison with the stunning originality of War Horse or Coram Boy. Pace Pratchett fans, but this is partly down to the book ...