Interview: Joel Horwood Chats THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

Following its transfer to The Duke Of York’s Theatre, playwright Joel Horwood talks taking Neil Gaiman's classic story from page to stage

By: Nov. 26, 2021

Interview: Joel Horwood Chats THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

Joel Horwood has written for both stage and screen, including adapting the iconic Radiohead album "OK Computer" for BBC Radio 4, the TV show Skins, and the Olivier Award-nominated show I Want My Hat Back.

His latest work is an adaptation of the much-loved Neil Gaiman book The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Starting out at the National, the pandemic forced a temporary closure while we waited for theatres to reopen. Now, it's playing to West End audiences at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Joel chats to us about the responsibility of translating a Neil Gaiman novel to stage and what he loves about being a playwright.

Had you read any Neil Gaiman before adapting The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

I'd seen these amazing talks that he'd given, so I knew who he was but hadn't read his work. Now, of course, I've read tons and have been awakened to his complete genius.

When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came through the post from the National, it was a delight to finally properly engage with his work. I read it in one sitting; it was really moving and a beautiful experience and something that clearly I clicked with.

One of the first things I did after reading the book was Google Neil Gaiman. I saw his huge fanbase that absolutely cherishes his work and have lines from his books tattooed on their arms. And I completely understand why, because he really speaks to what it is to be isolated and live half your life in an imagined world, which I think we all do, and we all feel very private about.

What was your process for turning this into a stage show?

Katy Rudd [the director] and I met Neil Gaiman, and talked to him about our initial thoughts about the book. He was incredibly gracious and let us blather on at him about how much we loved it, and all the things we thought it could be about. He was brilliantly evasive in terms of not giving us any clues as to what he thought it was about.

From that point, I wrote a really rough first draft. We knew that we wanted to present the world that he had created, rather than try and give a first-person narration version. We knew we needed some really big ideas for how to do things like hunger birds, the destruction of the universe and stepping into a bucket; these are huge and exciting ideas, but how do we do them on stage? Interview: Joel Horwood Chats THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

The National is an amazing engine of development, and it gave us the geniuses that are Steven Hoggett [movement director] and Jamie Harrison [magic and illusions director and designer]. We had a workshop to try and stage some of those crazier aspects, which Neil also came to. From that point, it was like "Yeah, I think this could work, let's do it!".

I then developed it with the help of the National, Katie and Neil. By the end of the readings, we felt like we really had something on our hands. We could go back into a workshop with a more developed idea of what those big moments and set-pieces needed to achieve.

The process didn't stop there though, because when the show moved into the Duke of York's Theatre, it meant another process of adaptation of the designs, the allusions and storytelling moments for a new space.

How did you find the process overall?

The process has been a wonderful and continuous one. Now that the show is on, I feel a tiny bit bereft because I haven't got anything else to do. I don't want my job to be over, but it is.

It's been absolutely magical because it's also encompassed the birth of my second child. I've become a father, working on a story about losing a father and recognising what it is to be a kid. Neil is very open about how he wrote it as a love letter to his wife, so the whole story feels so full of life and love. It's been a wild and huge journey.

How does it feel to have staged this show in the West End?

It's a complete delight and I feel incredibly lucky. During the pandemic it's been a real life-saver.

It was on at the National just before the pandemic hit, and it felt like this huge moment. So, when the theatres closed, I felt a bit robbed of it because it felt like it disappeared. It felt like it was all over.

To know that the National and the people that made and saw the show all loved and cherished it and wanted it to come back was a pilot light of hope in the darkness. To be on the West End has just been a dream.

Interview: Joel Horwood Chats THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

What other moments in your career are you really proud of?

I'm just proud that I'm still doing it.

Any moment when I think "Why am I doing this?", I always think of when you're sitting in the audience, and you really feel the unity of everyone feeling something at the same time. You feel like you're on a roller coaster that you've had some part in engineering, and that's such a rush.

The first time I knew I wanted to be a playwright was when I made a show and sat in the audience. At no point before that did I ever think it was something that I actually wanted to do, I just found myself doing it. Then when I was sitting in the audience for my first show, that's when I knew this was the thing for me. So my proudest moments would be always sitting with an audience.

I've always tried to do things that I really believe in, rather than things that are going to be stepping stones to other things. There's always been things that I think are exciting and saying something that I can pour my heart and soul into for the process until I'm sitting in an audience watching those things.

Having adapted a Neil Gaiman book, are you now on the lookout for the next potential adaptation?

I think I've always kind of gone, "what's next?". Partly out of pure anxiety and partly out of the hunger for making live work. Now I feel hopefully I've got some licence to make some nice big shows.

This show has also helped me work out what I like. I definitely want to do something that has a similar amount of heart, passion and genuine power. This book has been a real jewel of humanity and being able to lean into those kinds of mythic universals that really unite us at a time when we all have a fuller understanding of what it means to be socially isolated or socially distanced. It's just a really moving thing to be a part of.

What advice would you give to any budding playwrights?

I'd say just do it, go for it. The best thing about being a playwright is you can get it wrong, and you can learn.

The way I started, I just wrote a play that was not very good, put it on with some friends and sat in an audience. And there were good bits, and because there were good bits, I loved it and I knew what I wanted to make. But there were also terrible bits which were excruciatingly embarrassing, and it taught me how to make things better. So, my advice would be to learn on the job.

Why should people come and see The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

I don't think there's anything else like it. It encompasses all kinds of universal emotions, and it is moving and powerful. Also, the work that the actors are doing is so impressive.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the Duke Of York's Theatre. Buy tickets here

Photo credits: Manuel Harlan



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