JOEL Horwood’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane thrilled audiences and critics when it opened at the National Theatre in London just before the pandemic hit, and after a West End transfer is now on a UK tour until early October, returning to the south and west at Southampton, Bristol and Truro later in the run.
It very audibly delighted a packed house at Bath Theatre Royal on its opening night this week, as clumps of excited teenagers posed for selfies with the signs outside the theatre and the merch inside.
The output of Portsmouth-born Gaiman is prolific and varied, and perhaps unsurprisingly he has achieved a cult following for his multi-faceted works. The book on which the show is based, published a decade ago, is full of fantasy, emotion, fear, literary allusions and family dynamics and it is beloved of a generation of young readers and their parents.
Its genres are described as “dark fantasy, surrealism, horror and magic realism” and certainly director Katy Rudd and her creative team, led by set designer Fly Davis, kept all those in mind to create a mesmerising, threatening and astonishing framework for the story. If anyone tells you young people don’t enjoy live theatre because it can’t hold a candle to the effects achieved on film, they haven’t seen this show.
The movement (directed by Steven Hoggett), the costume and puppetry (Samuel Wyer), the lighting (Paule Constable), the sound (Ian Dickinson) and the music composed by Jherek Bischoff all contribute to the cinematic visuals and often balletic action as the ghastly ghostly monsters assail The Boy (Keir Ogilvy, alternating the role with Daniel Cornish) and his new friend Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa).
I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on the adaptation, but was surrounded by people who thought it authentic and exciting.
My impression was of a moving story of childhood loss and uncertainty and of parental inability to connect without resorting to silly games and lies. Then there are the howling caricatures, none worse than the pretty, curly blonde temptress/wicked witch pseudo step mother.
The Hempstocks, apparently a recurring theme in Gaiman’s books, are earth mothers with magical powers. Old Mrs Hempstock (played delightfully by Finty Williams, showing her own maternal heritage) and her daughter Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) are the warm heart of the story, with The Boy’s father (Trevor Fox) and sister (Laurie Ogden) as the emery-boards of his life.
For me, the extravagant style overwhelms the substance of the play, which seems to have been devised to tick the boxes of “young adult” audience appeal – visually and aurally spectacular with its soul as a secondary consideration.