Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel is meant to be his most autobiographical. Maybe the monsters and the magic that populate the book are stretching the idea of autobiography a bit, but maybe not. After all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is all about how remembering the past – especially one’s childhood – is just as much an act of imagination as writing a story.
Pruned and slightly reshaped by playwright Joel Horwood for this dazzling production, the story itself is pretty enchanting. There’s a bookwormish boy who lives with his dad and sister. He meets Lettie, a mysterious, magical girl from a farm nearby, and they accidentally let a monster from another universe into his world.
The dazzle comes from director Katy Rudd (best director at The Stage Debut Awards in 2018) who, with a crack creative team, throws everything at this production. The set design by Fly Davis – a black stage tunnelling towards a malevolent thicket of black branches – meshes with movement by Steven Hoggett, magic from Jamie Harrison, puppetry and costume design from Samuel Wyer and lighting from Paule Constable. It all feels like one continuous act of illusion, a big, multilayered magic trick. Every element is working towards the same goal: conjuring up a world that is a creepy, uncanny smudge of reality and imagination.
It does feel like we’ve seen individual components before. Hoggett and Harrison both worked on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the meeting of movement and magic were a huge part of that show’s success. Here, we have the same elegance and sinuousness in every movement and gesture the cast members make, combined with fantastic illusions.
But that’s not to downplay some real innovation. Rudd makes consistently clever choices in the way she celebrates, rather than hides, the fact that this is theatre. She uses the ensemble cast – who also move the scenery – as strange, otherworldly presences, and there’s a particularly brilliant scene where the monster, taking the form of a lodger (a brilliantly villainous Pippa Nixon), appears and disappears impossibly through a series of spinning doors.
Samuel Blenkin (another Cursed Child alumnus) anchors the production superbly as the wide-eyed boy, the heart of the show. 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, and he works well with Marli Siu’s mysterious Lettie, an uncanny combination of childlike and ageless.
It feels like a production pitching itself as the next big hit for the National, but it’s not quite there yet. With so much going on all the time, it doesn’t pull everything off. Screws need tightening.
But Rudd and Horwood, taking Gaiman’s imagination as a cue, have created something that makes you marvel at what theatre can do, and that’s pretty magical. The boy reads books about characters who escape into other worlds – Narnia, Alice in Wonderland. Then he escapes into one himself. And, as the show casts its powerful spell, so do we.