‘It's going to be bigger, stranger': Neil Gaiman on the return of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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A mass of bones circle and screech. Jaws are cracked open in ancient, deafening roars. With their gnarled beaks and enormous, oily wings, these creatures look as if they could eat you whole.

In central London, cast and crew are rehearsing for the West End transfer of the National Theatre’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 magic,” Gaiman laughs, recalling the original staging of his monster-riddled, grief-stricken story at the Dorfman theatre. The sellout production was supposed to transfer last year, but the pandemic got in the way. Now the team are preparing to install the vastnessof an ocean in the Duke of York’s Theatre. With a new cast and different staging this time round, can they re-bottle the lighting?

“As a director, you’re never like: ‘That’s it,’” says the show’s director Katy Rudd. “You always want to keep mining a piece and discovering new things about it.” When the show was at the Dorfman, the National Theatre’s smallest space, the audience were immersed on three sides; in the West End, Rudd is determined to keep the sense of intimacy. “I’ve found moments where things come from behind and around you,” she says. “That scene you just saw … ” she stops herself from giving the secrets away, “in the new theatre, it will feel like mass destruction.”

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

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows a young boy whose life is interrupted by a monstrous, rotten creature – a colossal puppet too big to fit in the rehearsal room – that is intent on destroying him. “It’s about memory and the imagination and standing up to the dark,” Gaiman says. “It’s about being powerless and the sense that we can get through it together.”

The process of getting the show on stage has been long in the making, but the book feels inherently theatrical. “I really liked the fact that it was about these big, big, big things,” says puppet and costume designer Sam Wyer, who first suggested the book to Katy. “Impossible things to frame, like the whole of knowledge and the universe being torn in half. And it was about small things, about feeling warm when you’re holding a bowl of porridge.” To Rudd, Gaiman’s writing almost read like stage directions: “When he’s running through the woods, it felt like it 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 theatre.”

One of the most ambitious challenges was bringing Gaiman’s monsters to life, particularly when he describes them as something you can never quite see, as is the case with the hunger birds. Flicking through photos of black charcoal slashes and delicate bird skulls, Wyer shows how they gradually made the gnarled creatures physical. He picks up what looks like a mass of burnt, broken umbrellas. “And suddenly,” he says, flicking his wrist so the dark mass unfolds into a great wing, “we’re working with our wings.” He whips it round, the matted fabric making a battering sound like a flock of birds storming. “I like that the design is unstable, not a total bird-like thing. It’s bits, it’s bones,” Rudd says. “That’s the power of theatre. We offer an idea and the audience fills it in.”

Being staged nearly two years after its initial run, the show has been almost entirely recast, with The Crown actor James Bamford playing the unnamed boy at the heart of the story. “You fall in love with them,” Rudd says of the new cast. “They’re working to make it better and stronger and bringing new life into it.” The team decided to build afresh, rather than just slotting new actors into existing places. “It’s not going to be that show,” Gaiman says of the West End run. “It’s going to be another show. It’s going to be a little bit bigger and a little bit stranger, and it gets to take up more room.”

Gaiman’s 2013 novel was already a tearjerker but, post-pandemic, the new production takes on something deeper. “For all its fantasy and magical-realist elements, in the end, it’s about what we’re all frightened of,” says Penny Layden, who plays Old Mrs Hempstock, a mysterious woman who lives close to the young boy. After the last two years, audiences will have much more to draw 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: growing and ageing and the shifts that happen in each of us all of the time. “When I think of the me who saw that show in the National two years ago,” Gaiman says, “I’m not sure he was me now. That me was an innocent who thought that just because things were in your diary, they were going to happen. The world has proved itself to be absolutely unreliable.” So it feels fitting that the play is changing – and will again, when it tours the UK. “Nothing’s ever the same,” as Old Mrs Hempstock says in the book. “Be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane runs to 24 April, Duke of York’s Theatre, WC2. Details of a 2023 UK tour will be announced at a later date.

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