The Told By An Idiot company's adaptation of Philip Pullman's 1995 book premièred in Sheffield in spring 2003, when it was known that the National Theatre would be staging Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy but before that show's runaway success. Now the two go head-to-head: the National are reviving their two-part epic, whilst The Firework-Maker's Daughter fulfils the Lyric Hammersmith's usual aim of offering imaginative, original fare for the holiday season.
It turns out unsurprisingly to be a getting-of-wisdom tale. Lila first runs away from her home in Thailand (followed desperately by her friend Chulak and the talking white elephant Hamlet) in search of the secrets of her father's pyrotechnic craft, a quest which entails braving a fire demon who lives in a volcano; then she is forced to compete against the world's greatest firework-makers, the prize being her own father's life. At the end, she finds that the magic ingredient isn't a chemical compound, but something inward. Pullman, of course, can tell such a story with narrative, comic and sentimental mastery, and that blend of childlike joy and adult wryness is exactly the speciality of Told By An Idiot as well.
This second outing is less wondrous than the first, not just through familiarity. Even after several previews, some technical cues were on the sloppy side on press night. It's also instructive to feel the difference in atmosphere between the Lyric's "fourth wall" proscenium-arch space and the more immediate thrust stage of the Sheffield Crucible, where the action came out to meet the audience. Ayesha Antoine as Lila has not her predecessor (and now co-director) Hayley Carmichael's gift for playing emotions with luminous directness, but then who does? What Antoine does possess is an appealing tomboyishness, giving Lila a forthright best-mate quality.
Malcolm Ridley makes a nicely understated talking white elephant, although actually what makes the elephant (in an object example of the Idiots' skill at building exotic effects from simple ingredients) is a length of flexible tubing, a blanket and a couple of umbrellas. Amanda Lawrence has made the transition in recent years from left-field work with multimedia company Fecund to becoming a deliciously scene-stealing comic actress; here, believe it or not, she gets the laughs by wearing twinkly red streamers on her fingers and literally playing fire.
This won't blow the National's large-scale spectacle away, but it has visual delights (including some real pyro work), fun and a ripping yarn to make a solid alternative to bog-standard panto.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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