Magic in theatre for younger audiences is surprisingly hard to accomplish. Not just the sleight of hand kind (easy!) but that real coming together of all the elements to make a show that is at once entrancing, challenging and uplifting.
Once long ago in a theatre not so very far from here, a young director called Rufus Norris pulled it off with his alternative version of The Sleeping Beauty, sinister and satisfying in equal measures. I suddenly remembered that show when I was sitting in the National Theatre that he now runs, watching another young director Katy Rudd and adaptor Joel Horwood putting their own wondrous spin on Neil Gaiman's The Ocean At the End of the Lane and turning it into something very special.
The book, according to Gaiman, is his most autobiographical, concerning as it does the encounters of a bookish, sad Boy (Samuel Blenkin) with the mysterious and welcoming Hempstock family, who live in a farmhouse that was mentioned in the Domesday Book and seem to possess magical powers. Together with his new friend Lettie (Marli Siu), he encounters weird, threatening creatures that
seem to have escaped through "a rip in forever where possibilities begin".
The power of the production – and I presume the book – is that like all the best children's stories it tackles dark and serious subjects through a story that is full of imaginative wonder. The show begins with a man at the grave of his father as snow falls (it had me at that point; I can never resist theatrical snow). The man then goes back to remember his life as a motherless son, when the father he has just buried was struggling to cope and bring up a family without the help of his dead wife.
In the course of his journey back in time he questions the nature of memory and imagination, and how the two are linked, and explores questions of what is real and what belongs to books. The creatures he encounters might be smiling people hiding a terrible creature within – or they might simply be well-meaning and lonely.
I don't want to give too much away because if you don't know the plot it works incredibly well. What I can say is that Rudd does a terrific job bringing it to life. Set designer Fly Davis has created a strip of dark land which recedes into a tangle of brambles; things rise from the stage as needed – and vanish alarmingly. The Hempstock kitchen is beautifully evoked, an old-fashioned haven from all terrors.
With the help of puppets designed by Samuel Wyer and directed by Finn Caldwell, movement from Steven Hoggett, illusions from Jamie Harrison, lighting by Paule Constable and sound and music from Ian Dickinson and Jherek Bischoff, the production creates a convincing and engrossing world that slips between the ordinary and the fantastic. The first creature to appear is a ragbag of cloths and tatters manipulated by clearly visible puppeteers; she still makes you want to jump out of your seat. And when the Hunger Birds arrive it is genuinely frightening, a tapping into every fear of the unknown (children under ten would, I suspect, find it all too much).
There's the odd longueur in the script that could do with tightening, occasional moments when the energy just vanishes, but the show is wonderfully funny too, partly because Blenkin's Boy has such brilliant comic timing. "I have no idea what's happening" he says with wide-eyed amazement as events swing out of control around him. I loved his prissy way of moving, his sense that if he holds his gangly, gauche body together nothing can truly go wrong; and as he confronts the evil Ursula (marvellous Pippa Nixon, smiling like a malicious Mary Poppins) who has moved into his home with designs on his Dad, he speaks for every child who has ever feared a step-parent or loathed
There's fine support too from Justin Salinger as Dad, Jade Croot as annoying Sis, Josie Walker as the powerful old Mrs Hempstock and Siu as the spirited Lettie. It's one of the most satisfying Christmas shows the National has created for a long time.