There are some hair-raising monsters in The Ocean at the End of the Lane – gargantuan spiders that hiss and lunge across the stage, flapping bat-like creatures that threaten to swallow up all of life, and parasitic worms who drill holes into humans and shapeshift out of them.
More worryingly for the bookish 12-year-old boy who encounters them is that they exist not in another realm but in his own everyday, rural England. The eccentric women who live in an ancient neighbouring house also don’t seem entirely ordinary, though the magical powers they display are benevolent, including those exercised by his friend and fellow adventurer, Lettie Hempstock.
There is no shortage of imagination in Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel nor in this monster-powered, adrenaline-filled spectacular stage version, adapted by Joel Horwood and dynamically directed by Katy Rudd. The production captures Gaiman’s fast-paced storytelling, and Fly Davis’s stage design does not let up in its visual imagination, bringing the story’s magic to life extraordinarily well. The Dorfman theatre’s stage has ramps along two sides and turns from a kitchen or bedroom to an alternate world of raging creatures emerging out of the foliage at the back.
The production keeps some of the book’s darkness, including a suicide and a shocking scene of child abuse but the boy, just named Boy and energetically played by Samuel Blenkin, is older here and a marital infidelity has been excised from the plot, presumably to make the drama more wholesome.
The Hempstocks are a quirky trio: a magical matriarchy of sorts whose youngest, Lettie (Marli Siu) is sweet enough, though her friendship with Boy seems relatively unexplained, both in the book and here. Old Mrs Hempstock (Josie Walker) is the wackiest and most characterful figure; with long white hair and formidable powers to warp time, she appears like a white witch from an Angela Carter story with comic edges. When Boy asks her age, she replies: “I remember when the moon was made.”
The book’s Ursula Monkton has become the nanny, albeit an evil one who has wormed her way into the household. Pippa Nixon, as Ursula, is one of the drama’s most dangerous and determined monsters, even if she looks like a 1950s homemaker in pink heels. She is, in effect, the quasi-evil stepmother with fantasy genre bells on, and the tensions she sparks between Boy, Sis (Jade Croot) and Dad (Justin Salinger), triggers the drama into life. It is a shame, when she goes, that the interpersonal dramas are subsumed by action and spectacle, though some nice scenes gesture towards the complexities of a father and pre-teen relationship.
Gaiman wrote the book for his wife, Amanda Palmer, and says that while he “distrusts” emotions, he inserted some in this tale. One wishes he had inserted more, especially between Boy and Lettie, though the story still carries a childlike sense of powerlessness in the face of adults and fantastical dangers.
The drama is bookended by another time frame in which we see Boy turned into a middle-aged man, and the circular structure contains another layer of story that prompts some questions about time, memory and imagination. “Where does imagination stop and reality begin?” asks Old Mrs Hempstock, but these discussions feel a little tacked on.
Two hours in, the imaginative monster fest keeps coming and brings with it a degree of adrenaline overload. But those who love Gaiman’s fantasy worlds, and there are legions who do, will no doubt be impressed by this action-filled spectacle.
• At Dorfman, National Theatre, London, until 25 January.