Expectation is all, that’s why we buy tickets. “Hopes for great happenings,” as Albert Hunt wrote in the 1970s. So when I saw that York Theatre Royal, a reliable provider of theatrical happenings, was adapting E. Nesbit’s The Complete Book of Dragons for Christmas, I was on it like a mince pie.

I love E. Nesbit, who wrote inter alia The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It and, along with Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series which prefigured Harry Potter in a preternatural way while J.K. Rowling was at primary school. All told, she is one of the great authors of my childhood.

So, I had expectations. Huge, roaring, fire-breathing-dragon-Game-of-Thrones-style expectations. And, when I saw that the show was in the studio and not on the main stage, I wondered how they would pull it off. Added to this, there were only two actors. And the set was a bare floor, some white steps and a block. But by then it was too late, I was already in the theatre. So I changed my expectations. I started looking forward to my afternoon tea at Betty’s.

Then the actors appeared. They were charming. There might be more to this than meets the eye – an unusual experience in theatre, where frequently there is less.

The Book of Dragons Elizabeth Mary-Williams Photography by Anthony Robling (3)Emilio Iannucci plays Harry, a boy back from college, while Elizabeth Mary Williams assumes the role of his younger sister, Effie. It’s been snowing, and, after some snowball banter, Harry notices some marks in the snow that were probably, very probably, made by dragon claws. Immediately, they turn to The Complete Book of Dragons – a rather lovely prop pop-up picture book that should be published immediately – to identify the culprit.

There follows an hour and 10 minutes of illustrated storytelling about various dragons from the book, beautifully told by the actors and exploiting all the resources of the space – designer Bethany Wells take a bow – and a thrillingly disturbing soundscape by Jonathan Eato. By the end, almost all my expectations had been fulfilled – but there are no spoilers here.

The Book of Dragons - Emilio Iannucci & Elizabeth Mary-Williams Photography by Anthony Robling (3)Juliet Forster directs her own adaptation with an assured hand. The adaptation is funny, sophisticated and riddled with irony, and adults enjoy it. But for my money, it’s too sophisticated for the age recommendation – three plus. I’d go for six or seven, and even then, some won’t get the whole thing, although they’ll be thoroughly entertained.

Also, given the nature of the material, I think the show is about 15 minutes too long. I found myself and the smaller children flagging before the last story and the big finish revived us. As it’s a series of stories, it would be easy to shorten. I’d lose the penultimate story, as it’s the least satisfactorily realised.

In the end, it’s the actors and the big finish I remember. The actors were terrific, bringing the stories to life with great energy and skill. If I was casting Romeo and Juliet, I’d look no further.

As for the big finish? You’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. Your expectations are safe in their hands.

By Chris Wallis

Images by Anthony Robling 



The Book of Dragons is on at York Theatre Royal until January 6, 2018. For more information, or to book tickets, click here