Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre

Samuel Blenkin and Marli Siu in The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Samuel Blenkin and Marli Siu in The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Credit: Archant

The National Theatre’s thrilling adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s surreal fantasy is a visual and imaginative treat

Samuel Blenkin and Marli Siu in The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Samuel Blenkin and Marli Siu in The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Credit: Archant

Should you need an antidote to panto, then the National's Christmas offer is a surreal and scary visual thrill ride that mines the darker edges of childhood.

It opens with a father's funeral, then flashes back to the night when the younger dad retrieves his son's Christmas present from a car containing the body of their suicidal lodger.

That this unsettling scene is played with black humour sets the tone for a fantasy tale that deals with memory, growing up, and the nightmarish reaches of the imagination.

A friendless, motherless 12-year-old boy falls into the warm kitchen of Hempstock Farm, where three generations of women seem to have lived since the Doomsday Book. Curiously, they know much about how the lodger met his fate, and when young Lettie befriends Boy freakish events unfold - they find a 50pence in a fish, then a monstrous multi-legged stick creature invades their land.

It's a 'flea' trying to cross over into their world via an icky worm that enters through the boy's wounded hand. In human form, this shapeshifter is Pippa Nixon's sickly pink-clad Ursula, who manipulatively woos widowed dad and gullible sis with a cooked breakfast and smarmy attention.

Incarcerating Samuel Blenkin's endearingly geeky Boy under house arrest, this sinister babysitter pops up in multiple doorways - a magic trick that perfectly ramps up his rising panic. He escapes (physically and mentally) through the fantasy stories that he loves. It is Marli Siu's brave Lettie who calls the farm duck pond an ocean, and their quest to vanquish the flea takes in an exhilirating underwater adventure and a terrifying encounter with predatory hunger birds.

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Gaiman's stories which explore the fluid boundary between the literal, imaginative and uncanny, find a perfect storm here in the highly theatrical chicanery of Katy Rudd's dynamic stagecraft, Samuel Wyer's stunning puppets, Finn Caldwell spectacular puppetry, Paule Constable's inspired lighting, Steven Hoggett's deft movement work and Fly Davis' set which keeps springing magical surprises.

Together they show how the best theatre can engage audiences on multiple levels in the eye, the imagination, and the heart being simultaneously abstract and frighteningly real.

The sole criticism is that the pace of the adventure mitigates against a more resonant connection bewteen Lettie and Boy, but the poignant relationship here turns out to be between Justin Salinger's father, his gawky son, and the man he grows up to be.