Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Opened 18 March, 2003

The Told By An Idiot company has long nourished its reputation for a childlike delight in telling stories and creating characters combined with a wry adult knowingness, this side of the self-satisfied smirking which would topple the whole creative edifice. They are therefore an inspired choice for a stage adaptation of the work of author Philip Pullman.

Pullman is best known for his cross-over success, the His Dark Materials trilogy, which combines childhood rite-of-passage with remarkable metaphysical imagination and is soon to be seen on the stage of the National Theatre. Michael Grandage, however, has stolen a march by engaging the Idiots to direct and act in a version of Pullman's 1995 book The Firework-Maker's Daughter at the Crucible in Sheffield. It's a wonderful match (no pun intended). The book, aimed at nine- to twelve-year-olds, shows Pullman's customary thought and imagination, together with a deeply cherished sense of fun.

When Lila runs away from her home in a fairytale version of Thailand to find the final secrets and skills of becoming a firework-maker like her father Lalchand, she knows that she must brave a fire-demon who lives in a volcano. What she does not know is the rituals which will protect her. The first act follows Lila, and her best friend Chulak's efforts together with the marvellous white elephant Hamlet to catch up with her and save her before she enters the fire; the second act details her efforts to save her father from execution by winning an international firework contest held by the King.

Hayley Carmichael's unobtrusive technical mastery and emotional honesty make her the perfect Lila, whether quarrelling, setting to with a steely determination or finally getting wisdom. Julian Bleach brings the same delicious mournfulness he displayed as the narrator in Shockheaded Peter to Hamlet the elephant, as he stands and coyly twirls his trunk of articulated tubing, while a couple of others stand behind him creating the beast's rump out of a sheet and some umbrellas. Part of the magic is in seeing exotic images conjured from simple resources: when Lila strikes a match and lights a fuse, she summons onstage a bloke wearing gloves with glittering red tendrils of lametta, who literally plays the fire.

Composer Iain Johnstone throws in a couple of big production numbers which, like everything else in the show, unite children's and grown-ups' sensibilities in the common spirit of fun. The second-act fireworks contest comes dangerously close to frittering away the narrative momentum, as the story halts to indulge routines of flying sausages and a prawn-shaped catherine wheel from the German entry and an enormous rocket from the American ("You know what the Americans are like: they never go anywhere unless they're sure they are going to win," remarks a character earlier, drawing applause for ironic topicality). In the end, though, we see why such a strategy has been adopted, and things get back on track just in time.

It always keeps coming back to those same few words: fun, delight and above all wonder, in the sense both of enjoyment and the communication of something more profound. At the press night, I dared to keep half an ear cocked for Pullman's responses directly behind me: his laughter and applause seemed as genuine and spontaneous as everyone else's. That's the ultimate testimony to Carmichael and her colleague Paul Hunter's achievement: they tell the story in a way that keeps even its own creator captivated.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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