In Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: ‘shows like this don’t come along very often’

Critics praise ‘hauntingly memorable’ performance with some ‘genuinely terrifying’ moments

Two Christmases ago the National’s spellbinding staging of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel – a tale of childhood friendship, fear and the power of stories – was a huge hit in the theatre’s smallest auditorium, the Dorfman. Alas, a planned transfer was “scuppered by you-know-what”, said Nick Curtis in the London Evening Standard. Now, though, it has made it to the West End – and with a “refreshed sense of wonder and visual dazzle”.

It is a triumph, agreed Anya Ryan in The Independent–a “hauntingly memorable” evening, with some moments that are “genuinely terrifying”, such as when oversized puppets “flip overhead and veer menacingly into the audience”. But the power of the show (which is not recommended for under-12s) also derives from epic stage wizardry and moving performances.

James Bamford is endearing – at times heartbreaking – as the lonely, bookish 12-year-old hero who is plunged into a confrontation with infernal spirits. Nia Towle is equally convincing as Lettie, the farm girl who becomes his guide to the netherworld, said Clive Davis in The Times. And Nicolas Tennant excels as both the older version of the boy and his gruff, widower father. My only caveat – and it is an important one – is that some of the close-up magic has been lost in the transfer from the intimate Dorfman to the bigger stage.

On the contrary, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. The production – a five-star smash the first time around – is “even better” staged here. In the bigger space, the ride is wilder, the magic more “head-spinning”, the envelopment more complete.

The first time I saw the play, I was wowed by the sheer “razzle dazzle” of it, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. In the larger Duke of York’s, the visuals remain jaw-dropping; yet the play struck me as more emotionally powerful. And its strengths as a story about the escape a lonely child finds in fantasy worlds – including the one conjured by C.S. Lewis – seemed more clear. Possibly it is simply that it bears repeat viewing, but either way, this is a production to see if you can. “Shows like this don’t come along very often.”

Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2 (0333-009 6690). Until 14 May

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