Monday, August 8

‘It’s going to be bigger, weirder’: Neil Gaiman on the return of The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Stage

A mass of bones spins and screeches. The jaws open with ancient, deafening roars. With their gnarled beaks and huge oily wings, these creatures seem to be able to devour you whole.

In central London, the cast and crew are rehearsing for the transfer to the West End of the National Theater’s production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. The raucous, velociraptor-like puppets are creatures called hunger birds, and they are gathering for the demolition of the universe.

“I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be magical,” laughs Gaiman, remembering the original staging of his monster-filled and painful story at the Dorfman Theater. The depleted production was supposed to carry over last year, but the pandemic got in the way. Now the team is preparing to install the vastness of an ocean at Duke of York’s Theater. With a new cast and a different staging this time, can you bottle up the lighting again?

“As a director, you never say, ‘That’s it,'” says program director Katy Rudd. “You always want to keep extracting a piece and discovering new things about it.” When the show was at the Dorfman, the smallest space in the National Theater, the audience was immersed on three sides; In the West End, Rudd is determined to maintain the feeling of intimacy. “I found times when things come from behind and around you,” he says. “That scene you just saw …” he pauses to not reveal the secrets, “in the new theater, it will feel like massive destruction.”

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Neil Gaiman.
‘It’s about memory and imagination and dealing with the dark’: Neil Gaiman. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows a boy whose life is interrupted by a rotten monstrous creature, a colossal puppet too big to fit in the rehearsal room, who intends to destroy him. “It’s about memory and imagination and dealing with the dark,” says Gaiman. “It’s about being powerless and feeling that we can get through it together.”

The process of bringing the show to the stage has taken a long time to complete, but the book feels inherently theatrical. “I really liked the fact that it was about big, big, big things,” says puppet and costume designer Sam Wyer, who first suggested the book to Katy. “Things impossible to frame, like all knowledge and the universe being split in half. And it was about the little things, about feeling warm when you hold a bowl of oatmeal. “To Rudd, Gaiman’s writing almost read like stage directions:” When he runs through the woods, I felt like he was telling me how to stage it. I was excited by the idea of ​​monsters on stage and this genre that you don’t really see in the theater. “

One of the most ambitious challenges was bringing Gaiman’s monsters to life, particularly when he describes them as something that can never be seen, as is the case with the hunger birds. Flipping through photos of cuts of black charcoal and delicate bird skulls, Wyer shows how they gradually made the twisted creatures physical. Collect what looks like a mass of burned and broken umbrellas. “And suddenly,” he says, waving his wrist so that the dark mass develops into a large wing, “we are working with our wings.” He spins it, the tangled fabric makes a thumping sound like a flock of birds storming. “I like that the design is unstable, not like a bird. They are pieces, they are bones, ”says Rudd. “That is the power of theater. We offer an idea and the audience completes it ”.

The ocean at the end of the road
The new cast of The Ocean at the End of the Lane: (clockwise from above) Nia Towle, James Bamford, Miranda Heath, Grace Hogg-Robinson, Nicolas Tennant, Emma Bown, Jeff d’Sangalang and Charleen Qwaye. Photography: Manuel Harlan

The show, which took place nearly two years after its initial introduction, was almost completely recast, with The Crown actor James Bamford playing the unnamed boy at the heart of the story. “You fall in love with them,” says Rudd of the new cast. “They are working to make it better and stronger and to give it new life.” The team decided to build anew, rather than simply placing new actors in existing locations. “It’s not going to be that show,” Gaiman says of the West End race. “It is going to be another show. It’s going to be a little bigger and a little weirder, and it will take up more space. “

Gaiman’s 2013 novel was already a tear gas but, after the pandemic, the new production takes on something more profound. “For all its elements of fantasy and magical realism, in the end, it’s about what we all scare about,” says Penny Layden, who plays old Mrs. Hempstock, a mysterious woman who lives near the boy. After the last two years, the public will have much more to lean on, “having lived in fear of this terrible thing, to know what it is to be brave …

The ocean at the end of the lane is all about change – growth and aging and the changes that happen in each of us all the time. “When I think of the me who saw that show on National two years ago,” Gaiman says, “I’m not sure it was me now. That I was an innocent who thought that just because there were things in your diary, they were going to happen. The world has proven to be absolutely unreliable. “So it seems appropriate that the work is changing, and it will do so again when I am on tour in the UK.” Nothing is ever the same, “as the elderly Mrs Hempstock says in the book. “Whether it’s a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and churning. And people change just as much as the oceans.”

The ocean at the end of the road careers for 2April 4, Duke of york Theater, WC2. Details of a 2023 United Kingdom excursion to be announced at a later date.

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