From Nigeria to rural England; the National Theatre’s second opening of the week – after Inua Ellams’ translocated version of Three Sisters – is a brand new staging of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning 2013 fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s running in the Dorfman until late January – although plenty of critics concur that it will probably have a longer life elsewhere.
Allegedly Gaiman’s most autobiographical book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows an unnamed protagonist – seen as both man and boy – and his mysterious childhood. A friendly coven of female spellcasters, a home-invading shapeshifter and a succession of magical monsters are all involved.
This theatrical adaptation is written by Joel Horwood – who had a hit earlier this year with Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse – and directed by Katy Rudd, an emerging director who triumphed at The Stage’s Debut Awards in 2018. It stars Samuel Blenkin as the nameless lead and also features the work of a team of puppeteers, movement specialists and magic consultants.
But will the critics fall for Gaiman’s fantastical fable? Do Horwood and Rudd successfully lift it from page to stage? Does the National have a Christmas cracker on its hands?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane was first published in 2013, and went on to top The New York Times bestseller list and pick up the Book of the Year prize at the National Book Awards. Many would have thought it unsuitable for the stage, such is its emphasis on imagination, but it looks like they were wrong.
The novel is “an extraordinary piece of bespoke mysticism that most sensible writers would think of as unadaptable,” writes Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “But Joel Horwood pulls it off.” And the result, he continues, is “a unique fantasy” that’s something like “a cross between TV’s Stranger Things and Doctor Who”.
“It’s not easy to summarise the exotically tangled narrative” but essentially it’s “a beguiling tale about a boy who discovers a primeval realm on his doorstep”, says Clive Davis (Times, ★★★★). According to him, it’s “haunting”, while for Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) it’s “enchanting” and for Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) it’s “a heady, dreamlike whirl of story” that’s “scary and beautiful in equal parts”.
It is “something very special,” agrees Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★). “Like all the best children’s stories, it tackles dark and serious subjects through a story that is full of imaginative wonder.” Agreed, says Rachel Halliburton (TheArtsDesk, ★★★★), “it’s an edgy, stunningly thought through tribute to the wild and wonderful life of the mind, and its ability to help us engage with the horrors that life flings at us”.
“Isn’t that the marvel of fiction itself – the show, enchanting for young and old alike, poignantly argues: that it gives you the armour to gov forth and battle with the worst that like can throw at you,” asks Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). This, he says, is “the National at its very best”.
Not only does The Ocean at the End of the Lane have an exciting fresh director attached in Katy Rudd, it also has a crack creative team: design by Fly Davis, costume from Samuel Wyer, lighting from Paule Constable, movement from Steven Hoggett, and magic from Jamie Harrison. And, according to the critics, it all comes together brilliantly.
Rudd’s staging is “monster-powered”, “adrenaline-filled” and “dynamically directed” according to Arifa Akbar (Guardian, ★★★★). “The production captures Gaiman’s fast-paced storytelling, and Fly Davis’ stage design does not let up in its visual imagination, bringing the story’s magic to life extraordinarily well.”
For Cavendish, the show’s “spellbinding mise en scène” provides “one hallucinogenic thrill after another”, for Halliburton it “charms and terrifies in equal measure” and for Lukowski, it is “a pretty dazzling achievement that sees the NT go toe-to-toe with the fantasy worlds crafted on film and TV and pretty much come out on top”.
Some of the stage magic makes you “jump out of your seat”, warns Crompton. It’s “genuinely frightening at times” and might prove “too much” for anyone under 10. Marmion agrees: “I found the show more inventive than scary, but it’s probably best for children over the age of 12.”
“It all feels like one continuous act of illusion, a big, multi-layered magic trick,” writes Bano. “Every element is working towards the same goal: conjuring up a world that is a creepy, uncanny smudge of reality and imagination.” A few “screws need tightening”, he continues, but nonetheless, this is a show that “makes you marvel at what theatre can do”.
Taking the lead role in this page-to-stage adaptation is Samuel Blenkin – a young actor familiar with theatrical magic, thanks to his time in the cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. He is, all the reviewers agree, excellent.
He is “blinking amazing” and “a gymnastic combination of fear, fascination and fortitude” according to Marmion, while for Davis he supplies “a compelling performance” and for Halliburton “the success of the production is due in no small part” to his “superb, comically gawky turn”.
“Blenkin anchors the production superbly as the wide-eyed boy, the heart of the show,” writes Bano. “It’s a wonderful performance from a great young actor. Blenkin makes the boy as bewildered by the whimsical rules of the magic world as we are in the audience.”
Also widely praised by the press is Pippa Nixon, who plays Ursula Monkton, a sinister, shape-shifting lodger who malevolently manipulates the boy and his family. “Nixon plays her to perfection with a Mrs Coulter-esque faux-amity and calculation,” describes Cavendish, while Bano calls her performance “brilliantly villainous” and Crompton likens her to a “malicious Mary Poppins”.
She’s particularly good in one scene, singled out by almost all the critics, in which she imprisons the boy inside his own house, impossibly appearing behind several doors at once to slam them in his face. It is, says Davis, “dazzlingly unnerving”.
Oh yes. Neil Gaiman’s novel might seem an awkward, unlikely choice for theatrical adaptation at first, but Joel Horwood, Katy Rudd and the cast and creative team have pulled off something pretty remarkable. Horwood’s script is a mysterious mix of the ordinary and the otherworldly, Rudd’s staging is a virtuoso display of movement and magic, and Samuel Blenkin and Pippa Nixon provide powerful performances to go with it.
The National has scored its second hit of the week with what is perhaps its finest festive show for years. Five-star ratings from WhatsOnStage and the Telegraph and four-star reviews from everywhere else offer an earlier Christmas present to the Rufus Norris regime.