Is this as good as I’m remembering, or am I imagining it?
Well. Remembering and imagining are almost the same thing. There’s enough difference between the memories of two people at the same event that you might as well have dreamed it up yourself. Nothing looks like what it really is. So goes the central message of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, one of Neil Gaiman’s most celebrated books, adapted for stage by Joel Horwood.
It’s about the close comfort of reality and fantasy, and the immeasurable distance between childhood and adulthood . And I loved it completely. The stagecraft is stunning, the acting is heartbreaking and-
Did I know it was going to be good from the opening scene, when all the cast came on with umbrellas under rain and moonlight? Or am I imagining that now?
For some reason I regularly forget that Neil Gaiman is one of the most loved (and best selling) fantasy authors. I think that his books are secretly-eaten-snacks that I get to keep for myself, with a cloying darkness that I absorbed as a young adult but didn’t speak aloud to others. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of Gaiman’s most lauded novels, though not one I had read, so I got to experience all of the story for the first time.
The play follows a young boy in the English countryside who accidentally allows a malevolent being to cross between worlds. Fly Davis’s design feels like it’s grown out of the Dorfman’s corners, all roots and ramshackle and a kitchen bench that’s a squint away from being a tree and long grass that’s a squint away from being dark tentacles.
The design weaves a world of the supernatural and the domestic. The boy is aided by three (possibly) immortal beings who are (definitely) magic, who also chop carrots and fix the stile.
Life isn’t like it is in your books! The other adults in the show cry.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW? This show yells back.
Did it say this? Am I projecting?
Every element of the stagecraft is laden with metaphor. Ocean achieves the remarkable thing of uniting dazzling spectacle with rigorous dramaturgy. From the family kitchen, the father reaching out as a cooker is moved from his grasp, to the woods bending back to reveal a full moon in the sky, this text is both dependent on and in battle with its setting, so I’m absolutely thrilled that the design is so well executed.
Throughout this show, I feel like a giant child. I gasp and ooooooh at all of the magic tricks, including a particularly terrifying and reappearing act from the show’s villain, played by Pippa Nixon. I’m terrified by a creature of bones and maggots, I cry when I see The Boy (Samuel Blenkin, completely brilliant) cry as well.
Katy Rudd directs the show into a constant whirlwind of movement and set. A black clad ensemble who I think at first are stage hands are doing some National-Theatre-moving-big-set-pieces very efficiently, but then they pause on stage. Then they rest alongside the other characters. Then they morph, into cognitions and emotional functions, then into beasts.
Nothing looks like what it really is, especially grown ups. In a story which mixes then extrapolates adult and child, natural and supernatural, remembered or imagined.
Ultimately though, it leads us to a safe place to land. The wise old Hempstock thrusts her hand out into the audience as if to cast a spell, but then just yawns, stretches and rests.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is on at the National Theatre until 25th January. More info and tickets here.