Adapter Mark Ravenhill's script retains the episodic nature of a novel, but director Melly Still creates a compelling series of adventures with dazzling stagecraft and the aid of an enchanting score by Adrian Sutton and ingenious puppets designed by Yvonne Stone. The action is too sprawling to deliver the focused impact of Julie Taymor's staging of “The Lion King.” Yet there are many arresting moments, such as Mau diving into the ocean to retrieve his fledgling community's religious talismans. As Mau, Gary Carr is held aloft by several actors as he simulates swimming, while the boat from which Mau jumped bobs on a sea of blue cloth. Other captivating sequences include Mau and Daphne hunting a boar (made of bean bags), the shipwreck (with the actors suspended on wires as if they were plunging into the deep), and an attack by cannibal raiders (accompanied by a gigantic puppet representing the god of death).
Carr and Emily Taaffe strongly convey the questing courage of Mau and Daphne, full of spirit yet unsure of themselves as they push beyond the borders of adolescence to the necessities of adulthood. Jason Thorpe makes a delightfully foul-mouthed parrot, and Paul Chahidi is properly menacing as Cox, Daphne's former butler, who becomes a savage rival chief.
A production meant for theater audiences can sometimes suffer when put before the cameras. There are moments when it seems as if screen director Nick Wickham can't make up his mind where to shoot, because so much is going on. Yet these too-busy intervals are few.
During the between-the-acts features, a second season of live broadcasts by the National was announced. That's terrific news. Now, if only some enterprising producer would do the same for an American company.
Presented by NT Live on Jan. 30 on movie screens around the world. For encore screenings, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.