With two successful London runs and plenty of rave reviews, Joel Horwood’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s supernatural thriller The Ocean at the End of the Lane premiered at the Dorfman Theater in 2019 before a West End run on last year, is a success story of the copper-bottomed National Theatre. It’s also the first NT show to tour since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and given its much lauded wow factor and Gaiman’s strangely untouchable cult status, it’s just the kind of lively, headline – grab the theater the beleaguered touring industry needs right now. So it seems a bit Grinch to suggest that the further Katy Rudd’s Twilight production travels from its original home, the more the magic of her becomes diluted.
Gaiman’s 2013 novella seemingly thrives on ambiguity: it’s never clear whether the grotesque creatures in the woods that prey on the body and soul of our protagonist Boy, devoured by the recent loss of his mother and the suicide of his father’s lodger whether they are manifestations of an affected adolescent mind or some external primal force. It is also framed as a tale of memory, as if adolescence, when viewed from adulthood, is itself a liminal place where memory, unhappiness and terror become, like the trembling branches in the tree-haunted set by Fly Davis, impossible to untangle.
It is both a bit technical and unfair to argue for the redemptive intimacy of the Dorfman auditorium. Yet performed on the stage of that theatre, this show in its first iteration thrived on stealthy, claustrophobic horror in which the combined unsettling effect of Samuel Wyer’s tentacled puppets, hallucinatory use of strobe light, and an extraordinarily terrifying sequence involving new sinister “help” Ursula and a series of doors, seemed to creep offstage into the audience’s mind in ways that deftly mirrored the psychological taint of Boy himself. Salford Lowry, where instead the emphasis seems to be more on delivering one big bang theatrical effect after another.
A new cast has yet to settle into roles that require plenty of nuance if they are to combat the gnawing suspicion that the blurry thresholds between reality and imagination are actually a smokescreen for a rather convoluted story that relies more on surface dread than depth. Keir Ogilvy has yet to find meaning in Boy as a desperately unhappy and troubled soul. Millie Hikasa, far from suggesting that Boy’s wise friend Lettie Hempstock is half fictionalized by myth, half invented by something else, largely makes her way through the show. Charlie Brooks’ Ursula – a character who is supposed to suggest a frighteningly twisted substitute mother figure in the manner of all the best fairy tales – isn’t remotely scary. Let’s hope she settles down: she still has a long way to go.
Until January 8, then on tour. Tickets: 0343 208 6000; thelowry.com