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So magic really does happen. This fantastical tale of childhood friendship, fear and the power of stories based on Neil Gaiman’s novel was a huge family hit at the National in December 2019, but the planned West End transfer was scuppered by you-know-what.
Now, almost two years on, Katy Rudd’s thrilling production of Joel Horwood’s adaptation is back with a new cast and a refreshed sense of wonder and visual dazzle. It’s a lovely, heartfelt show with a surging narrative thrust, a macabre undertow and some brilliantly evoked, seriously scary monsters. I was captivated.
The 12-year-old protagonist, Boy, is friendless and motherless, living in the rural west country and escaping from his annoying sister and struggling dad into the Narnia and Alice books. When the family’s bankrupt lodger dies by suicide on Boy’s birthday, it triggers otherworldly activity, and an immediate bond between Boy and Lettie Hempstock from the local farm.
Lettie seems to be about his age, but actually she’s part of a timeless, mystical, matriarchal trinity with her mother and grandmother, who together police “the edges” against intrusion. The entity that wants to use Boy as a portal to the world first manifests as a huge, unfolding and refolding arachnid of rag and bone. Getting a claw into his body, it morphs into a sexy new lodger, Ursula (Laura Rogers), with designs on his dad.
Although the story celebrates female power, it also plays with old tropes of the three ages of woman (maiden, mother, crone) and of the wicked stepmother. But Gaiman also acknowledges grief and the emotional minefield of puberty in a way that CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll don’t.
As Boy, relative newcomer James Bamford powerfully evokes the pre-teen fear of being different, “weak and a weirdo”. Yes, since you ask: this did bring back memories. Making her stage debut as Lettie, Nia Towle is radiantly alive with the thrill of her own power, but also of playing with someone “normal”. Rogers is an effective femme fatale, Grace Hogg-Robinson a suitably bratty sis, Nicolas Tennant a solid, anguished dad.
This fine cast is part of an enveloping, enthralling theatrical experience. Designer Fly Davis creates a world where a kitchen dissolves into a forest, and doors pop out of the ground, as portals or barriers. Costume and puppet designer Samuel Wyer constructs giant, nightmarish banshees modelled on torn umbrellas, and tiny figures turning beautifully in an ethereal sea of silk.
Moments of savagery are powerfully evoked through rags of silk torn and splayed from a body: this show is recommended for those aged 12 or over. Also - bear with me - I genuinely think that we’re living in a golden age of lighting design. Here, Paule Constable seems to sculpt the very air.
If anything, the diverse disciplines of theatre work even more closely together here to weave a spell than they did at the National. We all thought this transfer wouldn’t happen, even Gaiman. I’m glad we were wrong.
Duke of York’s Theatre, until 14 May; oceanwestend.com