A mass of bones spins and howls. Jaws open in ancient deafening roars. With their gnarled beaks and huge oily wings, these creatures look like they could eat you whole.
In central London, the cast and crew rehearse for the West End transfer of the National Theater production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, adapted from the award-winning book by Neil Gaiman. Raucous velociraptor-like puppets are creatures called hunger birds, and they come together for the demolition of the universe.
âI knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be magical,â laughs Gaiman, recalling the original staging of his monster-riddled and heartbreak-stricken story at the Dorfman Theater. Sold-out production was supposed to be transferred last year, but the pandemic got in the way. Now the team is preparing to install the vastness of an ocean in the Duke of York’s Theater. With a new cast and a different staging this time around, can they bottle the lighting again?
âAs a director, you never say to yourself, ‘That’s it,’â says series director Katy Rudd. “You always want to keep ripping a track and find out new things about it.” When the show took place at the Dorfman, the smaller space of the National Theater, the audience was immersed on three sides; in the West End, Rudd is determined to maintain a sense of privacy. âI have found times when things come from behind and around you,â she says. “That scene you just sawâ¦” she stops revealing the secrets, “in the new theater, it will look like mass destruction.”
The Ocean at the End of the Path follows a young boy whose life is interrupted by a monstrous, rotten creature – a colossal puppet too large to fit in the rehearsal room – who intends to destroy him. âIt’s about memory and imagination and standing up to the dark,â Gaiman explains. “It’s about being helpless and feeling like we can get through this together.”
The process of staging the show took a long time to prepare, but the book seems inherently theatrical. âI really liked that it was these big, big, big things,â says puppet and costume designer Sam Wyer, who first suggested the book to Katy. âThings impossible to frame, like the whole of knowledge and the universe torn in two. And it was about the little things, of feeling warm when you hold a bowl of porridge. For Rudd, Gaiman’s handwriting read almost like stage instructions: âWhen he was running in the woods, I felt like he was telling me how to stage it. I was excited about the idea of ââmonsters on stage and the kind you don’t really see in the theater.
One of the more ambitious challenges has been bringing Gaiman’s monsters to life, especially when he describes them as something you can never really see, as is the case with the Hunger Birds. Flipping through photos of charcoal black nicks and delicate bird skulls, Wyer shows how they gradually made the gnarled creatures physical. He picks up what looks like a mass of burnt and broken umbrellas. “And suddenly,” he said, waving his wrist so that the dark mass unfolded into a large wing, “we are working with our wings.” He spins it around, the tangled fabric making a flapping sound like a flock of storming birds. âI like that the design is unstable, not totally bird-like. These are lumps, these are bones, âsays Rudd. âIt’s the power of the theater. We come up with an idea and the audience fills it out.
Staged nearly two years after it first aired, the show has been almost completely overhauled, with The Crown actor James Bamford playing the unnamed boy at the heart of the story. âYou fall in love with them,â Rudd says of the new cast. “They are striving to make it better and stronger and to bring new life to it.” The team decided to rebuild, rather than just inserting new actors into existing places. âIt won’t be that show,â Gaiman said of the West End run. âIt will be another show. It’s going to be a little bigger and a little weirder, and it’s going to take up more space. “
Gaiman’s 2013 novel was already a tearful one but, after the pandemic, the new production takes something deeper. âFor all of its magical fantastical and realistic elements, at the end of the day, it’s about what we’re all afraid of,â says Penny Layden, who plays Old Mrs Hempstock, a mysterious woman who lives near the young boy. After the last two years the public will have a lot more to do, “having lived in fear of this terrible thing, knowing what it is to be brave.
The ocean at the end of the road is all about change: the growth and aging and the changes that are happening in all of us all the time. âWhen I think of me who saw this show on National two years ago,â said Gaiman, âI’m not sure he was me now. That I was an innocent person who thought that just because things were in your diary, they were going to happen. The world turned out to be absolutely unreliable. So it seems fitting that the play changes – and will do it again, on its UK tour. “Nothing ever is ever true. the same, “as Old Mrs. Hempstock says in the book.” Whether it’s a second later or a hundred years. It’s still bubbling and bubbling. And people change as much as the oceans.