Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 14 May 2021
Sometimes a violent rip occurs in the thin veil of materialism, commonsense, morality and law. Children know this: a bereavement, a glimpse of a corpse you must be forbidden to look at again, an adult who beneath a smiling face is a chaos of filthy rags and crawling horrors.
Down the centuries storytellers and mystics and believers in the demonic have woven these terrors into stories and rituals. Fun is made of it all at Halloween, and decorous solemnity calms it in the prayer of quiet evensongs. But it’s always there. In a theatre, even a cherub-gilded playhouse, the sense of it can be released in sound and spectacle, clouds and crashes and half-seen giant batwings, set against the clash of homely reality.
And here it all is. I came to it cold, Neil Gaiman’s play (adapted by Joel Horwood) having passed me by in the Dorfman just before lockdown. And coming to it cold has advantages: it is a story about children, and to some extent for them (though I wouldn’t take the youngest: they need to be of Narnia or Pullman age to be confronted by complex terrors and bereavements and take a story for what it is.
The hero, James Bamford (a Cursed Child Potter veteran), convincingly plays a twelve-year-old. He has not only lost his mother without helpful talk about it by his frazzled father but is alarmingly confronted with the darkest of adult mysteries when the lodger takes the family car and uses it to kill himself after, it seems, a financial disaster.
Wandering out to a duck pond down the lane he learns from a confidently cheerful young farm girl, Nia Towle as Lettie, that it is an ocean. A strange coin is found a fish (50p not a sovereign, for the solidity of Gaiman’s myth throughout is in the mundane details). Lettie warns him that it may be a sign that the sudden death nearby has “woken up” something forever lurking, predatory and evil, on the edge of their reality…
So the playmates, with her as experienced leader and mistress of ritual, head through thickets (wonderfully evoked by stage managers who also whisk furniture in and out, it’s a fast-moving show). And they meet It: the dreadful Something, unnameable except as “flea”. And it is shatteringly terrifying, a vastness of ragged skeletal wings and sticks and beak, in dim light, dark puppeteers part of it and its terror. Lettie can “bind it” but not destroy. Later the pterodactylesque black spirits of hunger summoned to attack it are even more alarming, and I am a grownup with a notebook but my heart hammered. Worse still, IT can shape-shift and be a person, a smiling new family member. Laura Rogers. Lettie has power – whoever or whatever she is, possibly nothing at all, possibly one of a witchy trinity led by Penny Layden as a serenely powerful farm grandmother . And the nightmare, or breakdown, or serious spiritual crisis, which the boy undergoes is real – as the old woman says “truer than any hard facts in this universe”. And it is on a level more fearsome than any Narnian or Tolkienesque or Carroll tale.
Some make simplistic metaphors about adolescence, puberty, bereavement, teenage mental health. Not me. I loved it because it is a new retelling of the most ancient of true legends, the shivering courage that confronts supernatural evil. And, of course, because the puppetry and ocean-waves are magnificently done: a bow to director Katy Rudd, and to Fly Davis and Samuel Wyer, and the movement director Steven Hogget. They all earn the extra design-mouse below.
www.atgtickets.com booking to 14 May
rating four and a set-mouse