Paul T Davies reviews Joel Harwood's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at The End Of The Lane now playing at the National Theatre.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Dorfman Theatre, the National.
11 December 2019
There was a notable fission of excitement at this performance, mainly because Joel Harwood has adapted a novel by one of the world’s most loved authors, Neil Gaiman. Most recently his Good Omens was a hit TV adaptation, and, for me, I know him as the writer of one of the best Doctor Who episodes of recent years, The Doctor’s Wife, in which The Tardis takes shape in the form of Suranne Jones. This is his most personal novel, written for his wife, and is a work of childhood, memory and imagination. It’s about the past and what we carry with us, and what we suppress, told through magic realism in which a duck pond becomes an ocean and evil spirits are called fleas.
As you’d expect from the National, the show looks stunning. With Paule Constable again excelling in the lighting design, the real stars are the movement and physicality that ensures the production flows like an ocean, (Movement Director Steven Hoggett), and the terrific score by Jherek Bischoff. Leading us through the story is a fine central performance as the Boy by Samuel Blenkin, convincing in his storytelling, questioning and cynical when needing to be, embracing the fantasy with passion. Marli Siu is the daughter of the family next door, a family with mythical powers that cross the bridge between reality and the other world, and Josie Walker is highly enjoyable as Old Mrs Hempstock, the witch-like figure who is our counterpoint into the mythical, with a well-timed sense of humour. Justin Salinger is also excellent as Dad, and the older Boy, bringing in the realities and stresses of our world.
From the opening minutes, it becomes clear that Katy Rudd’s production will be a show of visual beauty, there are so many slick, stunning set pieces. Just as well, because sometimes the narrative runs a bit dramatically flat, and the story veers between the childish, (there is an element of the Wicked Stepmother story in the Flea), and huge themes such as grief and loss, and these moments are convincingly moving. There is an overlong scene in Act two involving a fairy ring that begins to look like a low budget version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and much flinging of arms sparking lighting and sound effects. That is more than compensated, however, by some magical sequences, especially the ocean itself, and some great tricks that keep the audience involved. I will admit this is normally not my kind of thing, but this is an imaginative production, that offers an excellent evening for fans of Gaiman and the genre.