IT HAS been a good year for fans of Philip Pullman. Nearly two decades since His Dark Materials' third instalment landed on our book shelves, the BBC begin working on a TV adaptation of the fantasy epic this Autumn.
This comes after Pullman told patient followers that the first of the long awaited Book of Dust sequels will arrive in October.
And now the Progress Theatre in Reading is also joining the Pullman party, with a six hour, two part adaptation of His Dark Materials.
The first and most pressing question that needs to be asked when walking into the diminutive theatre is how a book of such length and scope will be squeezed onto Progress's 6m by 6m stage?
Not only does the trilogy last 1,144 pages, it exists in a mind bendingly vast multi-universe of witches, cowboys and, of course, polar bears. The answer is with ingenuity, creative flare and a clear love of story telling.
Mrs Coulter (Madeleine Taylor) and Will Parry (Dean Stephenson)
The play opens in proper in what appears to be Victorian Oxford. Children run in the streets, throwing clods of mud at each other as their cat and dog pets chase along the floor. It quickly becomes apparent that we are actually in some kind of alternate reality.
The animals are not pets but in-fact dæmons, talking animal shaped reflections of their 'owners'' souls that come to drive the narrative forward as their mysterious power and presence becomes clear.
They also present the first of the stage challenges, competently overcome by puppet master Aidan Moran. The main characters are followed by actors dressed in dark clothing who speak for and swirl the dæmons around their human counterpart. For the smaller roles frog, snake and rat puppets sit on the actors shoulders to be petted or caressed, depending on the good nature of the character in question.
Mrs Coulter (Madeleine Taylor) and Lord Asriel (Charlie West)
Along with her cat dæmon protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Izzy Hayden) convinces her newly found best friend Roger Parslow (Chris Wootton) to sneak into her estranged uncle's presentation to the scholars of Jordan College.
Addressing the owl bearing academics, Lord Asriel (Charlie West) says he has discovered proof of dust – a curious, pollen like substance that drifts invisibly through the air – and in turn the existence of a great city above the Arctic sky.
Asriel is given a hefty research grant and after grumpily bumping into his niece, burns a path to the north up which the other characters will soon follow.
At this point we are only a sixth of the way through the play and what ensues is as fast paced and plot heavy as the opening scenes. The most remarkable aspect of this adaptation is not just the scale of the production – 28 actors playing 130 characters across 40 locations – but that Progress had the gall to attempt it.
Huge credit must go to director Ali Carroll, producer Liz Carroll, the back stage team in general and the costume and prop designers in particular. Through simple cardboard bear heads and hot air balloon baskets, the audience is taken on an adventure that has an Elizabethan-Shakespearean quality.
When disbelief is done away with and Hayden – who is just magnificent - begins to work her charm, Pullman's glorious world begins to fully surround Progress Theatre and completely occupy the audience's imagination.
His Dark Materials runs from March 23 to April 1. Tickets cost £12 for each part, or £20 for both and can be purchased at www.progresstheatre.co.uk/his-dark-materials