Neil Gaiman, adapted by Joel Horwood
National Theatre Tour
Lyric Theatre, Lowry, Salford
December 12, 2022-January 8, 2023; 2hr 35min
Christmas shows traditionally include magic, mystery and fantasy. For Christmas this year the Lowry has eschewed familiar pantomime and secured the opening dates for the National Theatre’s nine month tour of its hit production The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
There is no lack of magic here, but while all kinds of fantasy might come out of Aladdin’s lamp, there is no mystery about what is actually happening here. At the start of the second half our hero, the Boy (Keir Ogilvy), complains that "I have no idea what’s going on"’ – a sentiment I was inclined to share.
What the Boy is experiencing is a flashback to the bookish fantasies he knew when a duck pond at the end of a lane on a neighbour’s farm became an ocean.
The borderline between mundane reality and the fantasies of imagination is Gaiman’s territory here. So, for instance, an unwelcome nanny (Charlie Brooks) becomes a sadistic persecutor in one of the more comprehensible episodes in the Boy’s psychological journey. His main antagonists however are a pack of monsters, or "hunger birds", which he must confront.
Their appearance is the greatest distinction of Katy Rudd’s brilliant production. Her ensemble actors present voracious giant puppets in an indistinct but fearful form – something like pterodactyls. Their design (Samuel Wyer) and direction (Finn Caldwell) are superb. They devour their victims ferociously and, with the help of some clever trompe l’oeil effects, completely.
Rudd uses her ensemble too in the workaday task of scene-changing, having them spirit tables, chairs and other props in and out with a sinister, balletic grace (the movement director is Steven Hoggett). Another sequence, in which the nanny first disturbs the Boy by going in and out of a series of illuminated doors so as to appear double is, similarly, wonderfully proficient. Rudd’s visual sense and her deployment of an expert team clearly mark her as an exceptional director.
But even she, and her vivacious actors, cannot finally make sense of an obscure and sometimes pretentious script.
If only I had had an idea of what was going on...
Info and tickets here