You’d have to be a brave soul to try and turn Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane into a stage show.
But director Katy Rudd was the brave soul who did exactly that for a hit National Theatre production scripted by Joel Horwood back in 2019, transforming the magical, wildly imaginative tale of young friends becoming embroiled in an epic battle against destructive supernatural entities into theatre. Now, one pandemic-sized pause later, it’s off on a UK tour starring Charlie Brooks and Finty Williams, starting with a four-week run at The Lowry in Salford over Christmas and into the new year.
The project began back when Sam Wyer, who’d go on to design the show’s costumes and puppets, presented Rudd with a copy of the novel. “I was a huge Neil Gaiman fan,” Rudd says. “Sam gave it to me and we started dreaming about it, talking about how we would possibly put this book on stage, and then getting really excited.” At the time, Rudd was working as an associate director at the National Theatre, so she took the idea to them with a view to workshopping it with actors for a week. In turn, the National suggested that playwright Horwood was the right man to adapt the book.
“We all got in a room together, Joel, me, Sam and Steven Hoggett who’s a movement director, and we just started playing,” Rudd says. “We didn’t really have a script. We sort of had ideas. We’d pulled bits out from the novel. One of the first sequences we did, which is in still in the play, is where Lettie and Alex go searching for the Flea. For me, that was a real turning point because I realised that there is a theatrical language in which I can tell this story. There’s one way to look at that scene as two kids playing in the woods, doing a sort of scavenger hunt and imagining things as they go. But then there’s another way, which is that those two children are definitely actually trying to find a monster, and that those two worlds can exist at the same time. It was a sort of breakthrough, really, and it really informed how we thought about the whole piece.”
You’d be forgiven for considering that Gaiman‘s ambitious novel might be completely unstageable, though.
“Well, it was kind of unstageable, but that was sort of its appeal,” says Rudd. “In some ways, when I read it, I felt like it was telling me how it would be lit. It talked about lightning and the flashes of the sky turned orange. There were certain things where I thought ‘oh, that’s really amazing and I can imagine that, but how would you possibly do it?’ That’s what everyone said to me a lot of the time at the National: ‘but how would you do it?’ And I just said ‘oh, don’t worry about that.”
From the page to the stage
Gaiman is known for being hands-on with adaptations of his work (consider the recent TV versions of The Sandman, Good Omens and American Gods). In this case, though, he was largely happy to trust in Rudd and her team.
“Neil was really generous,” Rudd says. “Joel and I had to go and talk to him when we wanted to do it and he came to the National where we sat down and told him about our ideas. He was really open and kind and said ‘you should just be able to play, go and do it with my blessing’. We kept him informed along the way. We invited him to the workshops and he’d lob in some notes and then he’d go away again. He allowed us space to create our own piece of work, but he also came in with some beautiful, clear notes at the right time. And he loves it. It’s been a really joyful collaboration with him and Joel.”
Before forging a career as a director in her own right with productions such as The Almighty Sometimes at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Rudd worked as an assistant to Marianne Elliott, acclaimed director of the likes of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – bold, spectacular productions with which Rudd’s own work might be said to share some DNA.
“Marianne’s a huge inspiration to me and a mentor,” Rudd says. “I assisted her on several shows and I think you can’t help but admire her work and her spirit in a room. The way that she works with that is incredible and I feel really lucky to have had her guidance. [Old Vic artistic director] Matthew Warchus is the other person in my life who’s been incredibly inspiring to me. Both are people who I assisted as a young director, who just opened their rooms and let me learn and watch and gave me space to grow as a director. Marianne empowered me to take actors off and go and work with them. When I came out of uni, I couldn’t really afford to go and do a course in directing. I already had loads of student debt, didn’t really have a clue how I would ever pay that back. I couldn’t work out how you’d do an MA and come out with even more debt, so I just decided to learn on the job. It was working with generous directors that enabled me to learn as I went.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a Christmas show as such, but it’s running at The Lowry in Salford over the festive period and Rudd feels that it’ll be quite at home.
“It is a big family show. I think it’s like an antidote to sitting at home and playing a board game, to go out and see it with the family. Though it wasn’t conceived as a Christmas show, it did play as a Christmas show at the National and we had loads of young people coming, school groups and stuff. In that version, kids were sat on the stage, because we were in the thrust. I was thinking on the first preview, ‘if they don’t like it we’re all going to see, because they’re on the stage’. And kids are really unforgiving. aren’t they? They tell you how they feel about things, teenagers. And then I watched them. At the beginning, they were leaning back in their chairs and throwing stuff, and by the interval they were leaning forward, reacting really loudly, screaming when it was a bit scary, laughing, crying. It was so thrilling to see them excited about a piece of theatre.”
Rudd feels it’s particularly important to engage with that teenage demographic.
“Quite often you have kids’ theatre for really young ones and that middle age group gets sort of forgotten about, but they’re really important. They’re the people who are just coming up to be artists themselves or be inspired. It’s the age to really grab them, so I think this show definitely for them and it’s for their parents who will see things in it that they can’t see. It’s set in the 80s, so it’s for people who were born in the 80s and people who had kids then. There’s a lot in it for multiple generations, I think. Yeah, it’s a fun Christmas show.”
For Rudd, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is “a story about friendship and it’s about love. It’s about grief, too, and it’s about healing. We’re all coming out of lockdown, that time of isolation, and I hope that sitting together in the theatre watching a story about grief and loss, told through action and adventure, will be healing and remind people why theatre is important and fun.”
It’s a story with more than a dash of darkness to it, too. “That’s life though, isn’t it? There’s some quite dark stuff out there, but [main characters] the Hempstocks are given the tools to survive – friendship and love and home and family.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at The Lowry, Salford from December 12, 2022 to January 8, 2023. For more information and tickets, click here.