Fantasy is an area which has generally been overlooked in the theatre, but Joel Horwood's inventive production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (NT's Dorfman Theatre), adapted from Neil Gaiman's 2013 novel, proves this is the way to do it, creating a convincing and engrossing world that slips seamlessly between the ordinary and the fantastic.
Returning to his childhood home after the death of his father, Alex finds himself standing beside the duck pond of the old Sussex farmhouse where he used to play. He is transported to his 11th birthday, spring half term, when his dad was struggling to make ends meet and his friend Lettie claimed it wasn't a pond, but an ocean. Plunged into a magical world, Alex and Lettie's survival depends on their ability to reckon with dark, ancient forces that threaten to destroy everything around them.
This is a play about how remembering the past, especially one's childhood is just as much an act of imagination as writing a story, asking the question: where does imagination stop and reality begin? It is a unique fantasy, complete with malevolent monsters including a creature from another universe which insinuates itself into Alex's bloodstream and is reborn as an evil lodger, that draws on folklore and even Gaiman's own family experience. A fast paced, and sometimes scary, production, it is imbued with a magic all its own.
The atmospheric set design by Fly Davis features a black stage tunnelling towards an ominous thicket of black branches, while the action turns from a kitchen or bedroom to an alternate world of raging creatures–with extra-terrestrial puppetry by Samuel Wyer (who also designed the costumes)–emerging out of the foliage at the back.
Samuel Blenkin anchors the production perfectly as the wide-eyed, bookish boy at the heart of the show, ready to do battle with the forces of darkness. Marli Siu impresses with an uncanny combination of childlike and ageless as the mysterious Lettie. The fine ensemble cast–who also move the scenery–are used as strange, otherworldly presences, and there's a particularly memorable scene when the monster, taking the form of the lodger (a marvellously villainous Pippa Nixon) appears and disappears through a series of spinning doors.
This, then, is a production which will excite, unsettle and enchant in equal measure both adults and children.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Plays in repertory until January 25.
Box office: 020 7452 3000.
Image by Manuel HarlanLast modified: April 6, 2021