His Dark Materials is the production that children wanted to love, the Church wanted to hate, and theatregoers feared would be consumed by its own ambition. Expectations were always going to be high. Philip Pullman has been alternately praised as a genius and condemned as a heretic. His critically acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy depicts teenage sex and the death of God, and celebrates the temptation and fall of humanity as the salvation of the universe.
So the two-part theatre adaptation at London's National Theatre was guaranteed to be controversial. But the production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, has also been preceded by months of hype and anticipation.
Approximately pound;850,000 was spent recreating the multiple worlds of the novels, with Arctic snows, northern lights and walking dead. Puppeteers were recruited to animate the mystical monsters and animal-daemons of the books. At times, His Dark Materials seemed too ambitious for its own good: early technical problems forced the postponement of the opening night.
Pullman purists debated whether the novels' magical imagery and complex storyline could ever be successfully conveyed through a visual medium. And, at first, it appeared not. The opening 10 minutes of the play are filled with slightly clunking explanation. "I miss your daemon, your soul," one protagonist says to the other. "The aurora?" another character asks. "Is that the same as the northern lights?"
But then the scene is set for one of the most phenomenal pieces of storytelling ever seen on stage. Condensed into two plays of three hours each, the adaptation demands impressive audience commitment. But there is no effort involved. The tension is unrelenting, and the audience is entranced, childlike, by events.
His Dark Materials tells the story of two children, Lyra and Will, who live in parallel worlds. Together, they embark on a quest, meeting armoured bears, soul-eating spectres and rebellious angels, as they battle against the organised Church and come to terms with their own identities.
As Mrs Coulter, the cool villainess of the church, Patricia Hodge is inspired casting. But the production belongs to unknowns Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper, unfailingly convincing as the two teenagers.
Nicholas Wright's script streamlines the plot of the second and third novels considerably. But this is not a children's play. Even pared down, the storyline involves complex theological ideas. And there is an underlying darkness, including a graphic torture scene, which pre-teens might find disturbing. One could quibble over details: the excessively mannered witches, Lyra's wavering West Country accent, former James Bond Timothy Dalton's initial lack of gravitas as Lyra's father. But, essentially, the production is flawless. Tickets are, rightly, like gold dust. Beg, borrow, take a day off work and queue from dawn, but don't miss out.
Box office: (02) 7452 3000 or www.nationaltheatre.org.uk