Neil Gaiman has had a good year when it comes to book adaptations. A great year in fact. Not only did the second season of American Gods air but Good Omens, a television series based on the cult classic Gaiman wrote with the late, great Terry Pratchett, also made its debut and took the world by storm. And now the stage adaptation of Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens at the National Theatre and looks set to be a hit.
Adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantastical tale of magic, myth and monsters. When a middle-aged man (Justin Salinge) returns home for a funeral, he’s transported back to his childhood, when he lived down the lane from the Hempstock family’s farmhouse. The boy (Samuel Blenkin), a loner still dealing with the death of his mother, strikes up a friendship with young Lettie Hempstock (Marli Siu), and as he’s drawn into Lettie’s magical world the pair face a battle against dark forces which threaten to destroy their lives.
Adapting a well-loved book for the stage is not an easy task, especially when it involves bringing to life Gaiman’s vivid imagination, but Joel Horwood, with help from Director Katy Rudd, has done an admirable job and created an enchanting production that captures your imagination right from the very start. Fly Davis’ set looks startlingly sparse at first glance, large brambles shaped from wires lurking somewhat ominously at one end of the Dorfman’s elongated stage, hiding the horrors within. But it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the case, and the audience are swiftly transported to another world. The staging also helps to set the mood of the piece with the Hempstock’s homely and cluttered kitchen a safe haven for the boy, and a scene involving a myriad of doors particularly inspired. Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting works well with Jherek Bischoff’s compositions and Ian Dickenson’s sound effects to reflect the changing tone throughout. Samuel Wyer’s impressive puppetry adds to the dark fairy-tale-like nature of the piece, and is in some ways reminiscent of Sally Cookson’s A Monster Calls with the way that the cast and seemingly simple props combine to create the other-worldly characters of the production. Likewise Jamie Harrison’s illusions are a brilliant inclusion, adding a touch of magic and showing just how imaginative theatre can be.
A particular strength of the show is in its casting, with the actors all perfect in their roles. Samuel Blenkin takes the audience on an emotional journey as the troubled young boy, and you can practically feel his terror as the story progresses. Jade Groot brings some much-needed comic relief to the production as his overly dramatic sister, while Justin Salinger also impresses as their dad who’s struggling to cope following his wife’s death. Pippa Nixon is delightfully chilling as Ursula Monkton and gives off a Professor Umbridge vibe with her charming disposition yet sinister undertone. Carlyss Peer is a warm and protective presence as Ginnie Hempstock, Josie Walker instantly likable as the wise Old Mrs Hempstock, while Marli Siu weaves the audience under her spell as the young Lettie, and really is a joy to watch. Her chemistry with Samuel Blenkin really is convincing and their friendship is at the emotional heart of the show. The ensemble cast members also work well as they help with the swift scene changes and come together to play the fearsome creatures in this magical world, with a little help from Movement Director Steven Hoggett.
The Ocean at the End of Lane is by no means a children’s story (parents, do take note of the National’s advisory warnings). At times it’s dark and creepy and claustrophobic and there are moments which are genuinely disturbing as the boy’s nightmares are brought to life. But it’s also a delightful story about memory and imagination, love and loss and, I’m sure Neil Gaiman won’t mind me saying, in some ways this production is better than the book. Those who have read Gaiman’s novel may wonder how it could possibly translate to the stage, but that’s the beauty of this production, it’s proof that in theatre, anything is possible.
A mesmerising production that’s both terrifying and heart-breaking, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful story which captures the imagination and transports you to another world. With magical effects, brilliant casting and an ending which might even bring a tear to Ursula Monkton’s eye, this really is a must-see this Christmas.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 25 January.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan