After seven months at the National Theatre in London, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is embarking UK and Ireland tour. Ahead of its regional premiere, at The Lowry in Salford, I talked to the play’s Resident Director, Eleri B. Jones, about returning to Manchester, the joy of theatre, and what a Resident Director does.
Eleri first trained as an actor at the University of Manchester, but even from a young age, she was involved in amateur dramatics: “I’ve always been involved in theatre,” she tells me. When I ask what prompted her to become a director, she explains how it was more of a process than an instant decision: “I was always on the directing team [in amateur dramatics]. But I think I hadn’t given myself permission.” It was not until people pointed out that she had accidentally started an artists collective that Eleri began to recognise herself as a director.
Now, until September 2023, she is Resident Director of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, based on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, which is visiting 29 cities and towns across the UK and Ireland.
First, to ask what a Resident Director actually does.
“I’m going on tour with the show, maintaining artistic quality, supporting the illusion, puppetry and movement teams. I’m also in charge of understudies.” It seems like a massive job! Ultimately, it is about making sure the show is “embedded in the theatre”, since each theatre has a slightly different space. This is especially challenging since the show is a hugely technical one, using a range of effects to immerse the audience.
For added difficulty, the actors only arrive in Manchester on the day of the first show. “We’ll arrive around midday on the Tuesday, do a technical rehearsal, maybe a dress rehearsal, and then we perform on Tuesday evening.”
Eleri has performed at The Lowry before, but she tells me, “This is my first time in the main house [the Lyric Theatre].” Although it is a big project, she seems excited to be starting in Manchester and directing in a staple Manchester theatre. “I can’t wait to be back!”
This first series of shows makes up the previews, and while the tickets are often cheaper, they are no less exciting. “At this stage, we’re still making adjustments, we’re rehearsing between shows. They’re really unique shows.” An audience that sees one of these first performances may see something never performed quite that way again. But this is true to an extent for all theatre. As Eleri says, “It’s always a work in progress; it’s what I love about theatre.”
But back to this piece specifically. What is The Ocean at the End of the Lane about? Well, summed up in a few sentences: “It’s about friendship, about adventure, about growing-up. It’s about learning to overcome the obstacles that life puts in your way. It also has these sci-fi elements.”
As Resident Director, Eleri is also on the learning team, talking to teachers and young people about the play. But she insists that it’s not just a play for children. “I really believe there’s something for everybody. The play has a relationship with memory. It’s about childhood, but it also has these big technical spectacles!”
The play is set in Sussex, a setting which begs for a Sussex accent. I ask about the importance of representation of dialects and accents, especially from a theatre such as the National Theatre, where people might expect to mainly hear RP English.
“It’s even more important than ever that people feel involved in the National,” Eleri explains.“Especially for rural communities, it’s such an important thing to be doing. It’s what makes the theatre national.” The commitment to accent shows the range of work the creative team is putting in to make the whole piece feel authentic and truly a piece of fantasy set in Sussex.
Finally, what could follow this tour? Although she has a lot of creative projects in the works, Eleri confides that first, “I think I’m going to go on holiday.” After a nine-month tour and 29 venues, I can only say that I think she will have deserved it!