With two successful London runs to its name and a host of ecstatic reviews, Joel Horwood’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s supernatural coming-of-age thriller The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which premiered at Dorfman Theater in 2019 before a West End run last year, is a brass-bottomed National Theater success story. It’s also NT’s first touring show after The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and, given its much-loved shock and awe factor and Gaiman’s oddly untouchable cult status, it’s precisely the kind of buzz-grab title the beleaguered tourism industry needs right now. So it’s a bit Grinch-like to suggest that the further Katy Rudd’s Twilight production gets from her original home, the more her magic gets diluted.
Gaiman’s 2013 short story ostensibly thrives on ambiguity: it’s never clear whether the grotesque creatures in the woods preying 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, are manifestations of a distressed adolescent spirit or an external primal force. It is also conceived as a tale of memory, as if adolescence, seen from adulthood, were itself a liminal place where memory, misfortune and terror become, like the quivering branches of the decor infested with Fly Davis trees, impossible to disentangle.
It’s both a bit technical and unfair to argue for the redeeming privacy of Dorfman Auditorium. Yet performed on that theater’s thrust stage, this show in its first iteration thrived on stealthy, claustrophobic horror in which the combined eerie effect of Samuel Wyer’s wickedly sprawling puppets, hallucinatory use of strobe light and a rather extraordinarily terrifying sequence involving sinister news “help” Ursula and a set of doors, seemed to slip from the stage into the minds of the audience in a way that cleverly mirrored the psychological contamination of Boy himself. of this immersive terror is, alas, flattened beneath the arch of Salford Lowry’s proscenium, where the focus instead seems to be more on producing one theatrical big bang effect after another.
A new cast must also settle into roles that require an awful lot of nuance if they are to combat the nagging suspicion that the blurring lines between reality and imagination are in truth a smokescreen for a fairly convoluted story that rests more about surface terror than depth. Keir Ogilvy has yet to find the meaning of Boy as a hopelessly unhappy and troubled soul. Millie Hikasa, far from suggesting Boy’s wise friend Lettie Hempstock, half concocted from a myth, half from something else, largely screams her way through the show. Charlie Brooks’ Ursula – a character who should suggest a frighteningly deformed surrogate mother figure in the manner of all the best fairy tales – isn’t scary at all. Let’s hope he calms down: he has a long way to go.
Until January 8, then on tour. Tickets: 0343 208 6000; thelowry.com