Neil Gaiman’s short, lyrical 2013 novel inhabits a no man’s land between childhood nightmares and the disappointments of adulthood which is so terrifyingly evoked in this National Theatre transfer that it reframes the idea of a good family show.
We’re all used to cowering on the sofa as monsters rampage across the screen (Jim Henson’s film The Dark Crystal is specifically referenced in an adaptation which places the childhood of the middle-aged narrator squarely in the early 1980s). But I can’t remember the last time I cowered so low for so long in a theatre seat.
The beauty of Katy Rudd’s production is the way that it manipulates theatre space into a simulacrum of a child’s imagination: doors menacingly multiply, windows open on to enchanted forests, and a pool of spotlight becomes a small but impregnable safe space, on the condition (which can never be taken for granted) that the child is brave and smart enough to resist demons he doesn’t yet recognise.
The story is simple: a man (Nicolas Tennant) revisits the scene of his first love and the aftermath of his mother’s death, where he finds a family on the edge. His dad (Tennant again, swapping melancholy for comic exasperation) burns the toast, while his younger self squabbles comically with his sister in the bedroom they are forced to share because their reduced circumstances demand a lodger, who promptly kills himself in the family car. Cue his introduction to a witchy dynasty of farming women. The real witch, however, has infiltrated the family, turning every home comfort into an instrument of torture.
To describe the monsters themselves would be a spoiler – they are astonishing and constantly shapeshifting. But for adults there is a deeper terror of the violence unleashed in a traumatised family that is just trying to survive. Laura Rogers is chillingly plausible as the sinister arriviste, whose manipulative charm is countered by the ardent innocence of James Bamford’s stalwart Boy and Nia Towle’s charismatic Lettie, both played straight to the heart. Though the sentimental ending goes on a bit, this is a genuine rarity – a show that enthrals all generations without patronising any.