Writer: Neil Gaiman
Adaptor: Joel Horwood
Director: Katy Rudd
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The National Theatre’s dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane could pass as their Christmas extravaganza for kids (12+) or it could be viewed as a dark psychological fantasy which speaks to those of us who are much older. Actually, in common with great works by Barrie and Tolkien, to which Gaiman makes explicit references, this show can be both.
The structure of Gaiman’s story, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, holds the key to the writers’ themes. A middle-aged man (Justin Salinger) returns to his childhood home, remembering a 12th birthday on which the lodger killed himself in the family car. The writers are inviting us all to re-visit the anxieties of our pre-teen years, when protected childhood was ending and an adult world full of secrets and demons was opening up before us, like a vast, unexplored ocean.
Dreams and reality intersect in the flashbacks which follow. The 12-year-old, played with commanding presence by Samuel Blenkin, appears and Salinger becomes his vain single Dad, who is struggling to cope with bringing up the friendless boy and his irritating younger sister (Jade Croot). An encounter at a duck pond with the mysterious Lettie Hempstock (Marli Siu) brings the boy his first friend and introduces him to her mother, Ginnie (Carlyss Peer) and grandmother (Josie Walker) who, he learns, possesses supernatural powers, Soon the pond becomes a much larger expanse of water, stretching to the far reaches of the imagination.
Director Katy Rudd and Movement Director Steven Hoggett come up with a seemingly endless flow of imaginative effects and thrilling original music composed by Jherek Bischoff gives a cinematic feel to the action sequences. Quick changing sets, designed by Fly Davis are lit with a magical glow by Lighting Designer Paule Constable and an extended thrust stage in the Dorfman Theatre gives ample room for the spectacle. However, the venue also allows for intimacy, which is essential to the story, much more effectively than would have been possible in either of the National’s two larger houses.
A new lodger in the boy’s family home, Ursula (a gloriously villainous Pippa Nixon) turns quickly into his arch enemy. The trauma of his extreme isolation, brought out strongly in Blenkin’s performance, leads to the production’s most disturbing scenes. The horror of a child’s powerlessness when faced with adult aggression is as shocking as any of the grotesque monsters created by Samuel Wyer’s puppet designs and the realistic image of a bloody arm rising inexplicably from a pure white bathtub is more terrifying than any nightmarish fantasy.
Younger children could become distressed by much of the content of this show and the National’s age recommendation needs to be respected. Most young teens should be swept along by the spectacle and adventure on display, while their elders can be pondering over the deep undercurrents that are so powerful in Gaiman’s tale.
Runs until 25 January 2020 | Image: Manuel Harlon