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(or, staging memory in Fancy Another?'s Shaping Dust.)

I have a globe on my bookshelf.

It looks like an antique but it’s made of plastic with a vintage, yellowing design charting the courses of famous explorers. Francis Drake and Columbus. Drawings of ships with taut rigging and military submarines.

It was a gift from my grandpa from when I was a kid. It has a bulb inside that glows through the countries with this orange burn that tricks peripherals into thinking my room is on fire.

When I was 10, I learnt about the supervolcano under Yellowstone. I found out that if it erupts, it could be the end of us all. I turned the globe so that the Americas faced my wall and all I could see was the horn of Africa from my bed.

It only speaks when necessary. In a voice like from an old person. But one who you’re surprised by how young their voice sounds. It reminds me of where I’ve come from and where I’m going.

Last week, its bulb blew.


Back in February, I was invited to see Fancy Another’s debut production, Shaping Dust, at The Cockpit. The piece is an expansion of a 20-minute short play, with the rest of the script mostly devised by the cast through improv and other exercises. We follow Emma, an elderly woman living with mid-to-late stage Alzheimer’s, and the thought process she goes through on her last day at home before she’s moved into care.

So initially, I was worried. I’ve seen and read a lot of plays dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s and a lot of them fall a bit flat for me. Most – for obvious reason – focus around memory and loss of identity. And while this is reflected in the writing, it rarely carries through to the form of the rest of the play. We just skip back and forth, flashing back and forward when the writer feels like we need to see a certain scene.

But memories don’t quite work like that.

They’re hard to grab and easily manipulated. Somebody told me one time that every time we remember something, we’re only remembering the last time we remembered it, not the original memory. I’m not sure if that’s true – even a bit, it doesn’t sound very scientific – but it does a good job of explaining how they feel.

And that’s what Shaping Dust does that all the other plays didn’t do.

It doesn’t just show us the memories, it shows us memory. It attempts to stage the process of remembering something, as opposed to just playing out a scene like a video clip that we can press play on whenever we want. It feels like a tangible procedure, and we begin to think of it as one. So when Emma’s memory starts failing her, it’s not the memories themselves that are broken, it’s her biological ability to recall them.

I have a cuddly giraffe on top of my printer.

His name is Batik (after the orangey pattern on his skin) and he was a gift from my boyfriend from his holiday.

His voice is high-pitched, he has tall ossicones with tassels and one floppy ear.

I have a cuddly triceratops in a bird cage.

He is bright yellow and I bought him with my Waterstones staff discount. Fished him out of a display so he couldn’t be chewed by toddlers.

He has a kind, deep voice. He quite likes living in the birdcage.

I have a fake parrot perched on top of the birdcage.

Her name is Polka and she is blue and yellow with inquisitive eyes and a curved beak. Her long, faux tail feathers tuck just behind a few hardbacks.

Her voice is nasal. Commanding and austere with a slight lisp. She watches the door.

Shaping Dust puts memory onstage through the objects associated with different moments in Emma’s life. Her strict but slightly absent mother Patricia is represented by a puppet constructed from one of her pink frilly smocks and the actor’s own arms. The similarly distant father of her daughter is represented in the same way by a plain shirt; these are characters who’ve fallen into the blurs of Emma’s memory. They are their disembodied clothes and the words they say, but never their faces. When Emma is a young child, her furniture comes to life and speaks to her, Beauty and the Beast-style. It’s charming and tactile and ghostly. The actors melt away and it’s just a chair talking.

And the brilliance of the puppets is matched by their puppeteers, the whole cast piloting around these characters with ease and grace. There are subtle movements, like breath or twitches, that you catch every once and a while and invite us even further into Emma’s mind. We can gauge who the person is, even imagine what they probably look like, but like Emma we can only half-see.

And we can’t talk about puppets without mentioning The Little Girl. A teensy tiny thing who, unlike the other memory characters, isn’t represented by an object. She is a thing all of her own. A mannequin in a little dress. Initially, this choice bothered me; why was this puppet not represented by an object like all the others? But it did the job it was meant to – it made the Little Girl stick out as something artificially created for a reason, rather than repurposed like the others. And then we learn why she’s like that. And it all makes sense. And I loved it. She is perhaps the best piloted puppet in the production: curious and sweet and sinister all in one. She clops around in Emma’s big red heels and you can’t help but fall in love.

I have hundreds of books piled up around my room.

There are five stacks at the end of my bed all the way up to the lip of the mattress.

I have a bookshelf built in behind my bed where I keep my favourites from when I was a kid. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. A collection: different editions of Alice in Wonderland.

There is a new IKEA bookshelf by the door. It’s white and made from cubes that have enough room for three rows of books stacked behind each other so you can’t see the spines at the very back. It’s impractical but practical. And still isn’t enough room.

I have more little stacks on my chest of drawers and on my desk. Ones I got halfway through reading then gave up when I decided to power through the end of Murakami’s 18Q4.

I probably have too many. But I had my aforementioned Waterstones staff discount for over a year. So who can blame me?

They’re messy and loud and chatter when I’m trying to concentrate. They’re a bit annoying actually. But I still want to keep them. Just in case.

The acting is similarly excellent. Emma Nihill’s performance as the elderly Emma has a captivating, childlike wonder to it, like she’s been ripped out of an Enid Blyton. Young actors playing old has the tendency to feel a bit contrived, so Nihill’s plodding daintiness – capturing the youthful elements of Emma – is a clever decision. Emma’s younger selves are similarly well-drawn: Katherine Lea’s depiction of Young Emma is charming, fizzy and human as she takes us from Emma’s childhood to the moment she learns she’s pregnant, always feeling like we’re watching the same person… just a bit older. Jasmine Raymond (who also impresses as Patricia, Emma’s mother) is handed the baton next, after Emma gives birth. Raymond captures a different side to Emma, this one wounded and mature and clever. While initially I worried that the cast was switching actors for the sake of it, Raymond convinced me otherwise through her utterly captivating take. It added a depth to Emma that one actor alone couldn’t provide, as well as marking the massive shift that happens to her once she becomes a mother.

Tina Rizzo appears as Melissa, the wife of Emma’s daughter Alice, in a down-to-earth but complicated performance. Her energy brings light to a scene when she enters, something a play with this bleak(ish) subject matter really needs. Anna-Rose van der Wiel almost steals the show as Louise, Emma’s childhood penpal from France (she also takes on numerous minor roles, each with its own distinct affectations. The girl has range!) Even in relatively small roles, her performances are charmingly captivating; you sit up a little straighter in your chair when she comes onstage. Ellen McLeod completes the cast in an intensely-sensitive performance as Alice, who the play is kind of actually about. If this play was a creature, then McLeod would be the heart. She keeps its pulse going, gently and quietly, but powerfully. She has some great choices – little looks and facial expressions that say everything she needs to say – that make her really fun to watch. Unfortunately, her character suffers a little due to the story wanting to do a big reveal that Alice is Emma’s daughter a bit later in the plot, with her relationship with Emma being left ambiguous for the first half. I found myself wanting to see more of McLeod, for her character to be allowed to have a bit more depth from the beginning, rather than it all coming right at the end.

I have a cat bed by my door.

It hasn’t been here long. Only a month. It used to sit by the radiator under the window in my sister’s room. (My sister is the cat’s favourite.) But she moved out in January and the cat has been sleeping in my room ever since.

It’s a little grey tent that is soft and warm. When I look at it properly, I think about how much I’d like to be small enough to curl up inside it.

The cat has a nicer bed than I do, I say, my sister says, my other sister says.

It has a quiet voice. Sometimes the cat snores and you can’t hear what it’s saying at all. But at night, when the cat is silent and dreaming, it whispers bedtime stories and lullabies about all the places the cat probably goes when she’s awake.

The main issue with the piece is precisely what is so brilliant about it: the devised aspect allows for a freshness, originality, and unpredictability. But it also means that the structure of the play suffers slightly. It feels like a chatter of multiple voices. And in some areas, that works incredibly well, but when it comes to the script and structure, it feels a little disparate, with a couple of thematic lines not quite being wrapped up. There are hints, for example, that Emma herself is queer and had some sort of relationship with her penpal. There is a distinct tension between them that feels like more than just friends and Emma’s mother bursting in and angrily interrupting their play felt like a bit of queer subtext that never gets expanded on. Perhaps it was because Alice is a queer character, perhaps it was my own queer perspective wanting to make more of this, but it felt like an incomplete thread.

The order of scenes, while intelligently done in some places, could also perhaps be given another look over. We see the ‘flashback’ moments more or less in the order they happened, which felt inconsistent with the script being structured around Emma happening upon objects and remembering things associated with them. Perhaps seeing the past scenes in a more jumbled order would also allow us to get more from Alice earlier on, if we know from a flashback scene early on that Emma is a mother.

But all in all, Shaping Dust is almost a feat of engineering. They have managed to take memory and stage it so tangibly through these objects that I found myself sitting on the train home, having a chat in my head to the ephemeral bits and bobs that’ve cropped up at different points of my life. Wondering what my Year 2 teacher would look like if piloted by these puppeteers.

There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a new, young company hit the ball out of the park so successfully on their first go. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

I have a battered tin on my bookshelf. I bought it from a charity shop about six years ago. It has a design of an old naval ship on it smashing through white waves.

In it, I keep treasures. The treasures that can fit, anyway.

Theatre tickets from shows I loved. The wristband from my uni leaver’s ball. A joke from an old Christmas cracker I wanted to keep for some reason. And the paper crown that went with it.

It’s so stuffed with stuff that its voice is muffled like its talking with its mouth full. Its hinges squeak when it says something.

But I love when it talks. Its voice is my favourite.

Thank you so much to the Fancy Another? team for inviting me to review your production!


Shaping Dust ran at The Cockpit from 11th-15th February 2020.


Illustrated, as always, by my marvellous friend, Jem Venn.

You can find her on Instagram or her website.

  • fergus church.

(or, 'truth and lies in Flux Theatre's Something Awful.')

I’m meant to be revising for my GCSE History exam but instead I’m reading creepypastas: online scary stories. The hardest exams are over, I think – maths and science were last week – so I probably deserve a bit of a break. If you consider stories of murderous, obsessive stalkers obsessed with their child penpal a break.


Tuckered out from the first day of my bronze DofE – we’ve all been there – I’m nestled, fully clothed in a sleeping bag pressed up against my best friend. It’s a bit awkward and we smell of grumpy teenagers who’ve been trekking through the countryside all day. He’s snoring but I’m lying awake, listening out for the sound of goat hooves padding in the mud around our tent. Waiting for the sour sweat stink to turn metallic, otherworldly.


It’s dark and silent in Exeter town centre and I’m walking home from a night-time walk with a boy that would eventually become my boyfriend two years later. I’d been startled by the bells of the cathedral at midnight and spooked by the black waters of the canal as we’d walked past, but now that I’m alone on my walk home, I’m more terrified than ever. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’ll run into a man in a suit, smiling to himself and waltzing down the road towards me.



I think I was raised by these stories. Ghosts and dolls and thin pale men without faces. They feel like old friends from school that I meet up with occasionally. Like it feels a bit embarrassing at first but soon we fall back into our old jokes; me taking the piss out of them and them taking pleasure in making me jump, keeping me up at night.


Then I’m scrolling through Twitter one evening and see the announcement of Something Awful at this year’s Vaults Festival. And it feels like my old friends are hosting a grand reunion. Putting on a show. It’s been created by a fantastic team: written by Tatty Hennessy (who apparently insists on writing shows catered specifically to things I love; her play A Hundred Words For Snow is a gorgeous exploration into grief and arctic exploration), directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson (A Hundred Words For Snow and Vespertilio – both excellent) and produced by Flux Theatre who are constantly putting out incredible bits of work. Add a poster ripped straight from a 50s pulp horror comic (in my opinion, the best poster at Vaults this year!) and I’m sold.

Something Awful – the title is a play on the forum site where the Slender Man mythos originated – is inspired by a 2014 case where two teenage girls stabbed their friend in an attempt to summon the Slender Man. The girls were convinced that once they'd made a sacrifice to him, he would take them to his mansion in the woods. The victim was stabbed 19 times but still managed to survive, crawling to a main road, and is now pursuing a career in medicine.


The play follows two 13-year-olds Jel (Monica Anne) and Soph (Natalya Martin), two introverted (and slightly nerdy) friends who pass their break-times reading spooky stories online. A new girl, the boastful and boisterous Ellie (Melissa Parker), soon joins the group and becomes similarly obsessed with the stories. One new story in particular – The Whistling Woodsman – becomes their new favourite, despite it having barely any likes, and the tale of the mysterious axe murderer in the woods soon begins to infect their lives.

Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

I settle uneasily into my seat and decide to keep my coat on. The first thing to note about the play is that the Cavern at Vaults is the ideal space for it. It’s dark and dank. Too big but too cramped. The ceiling drips onto the grey brick. The actors patter through the puddles in their school shoes. The smell is mildewy and cold; it puts you on edge. You feel the weight of the trains clattering overhead, the heaviness of the earth and concrete between you and the station above. And it feels even heavier when the lights go out.

The play grapples throughout with the relationship between truth and lies: a theme exacerbated by the nature of these creepypasta stories, which – especially on their dedicated forum on Reddit, r/nosleep – often come with a caveat of ‘truth’. The stories must appear true, even if they are not. The commenters must comment on the stories as if they are true (“Call the police!” “Whatever you do, don’t go outside!”) and the original authors roleplay along as if they are the characters from the story.


In a similar way, the entire play hinges on the lies told by Marmitey new girl Ellie – that one person in your friendship group that's the life of the party one minute, then the next she's turned the music off, yelling at your mate and thrown a bowl of crisps out the back window. Parker’s performance perfectly straddles this line: she is bossy and cutting in one instance, vulnerable and sincere in the next, before reverting right back to bullyish - but it never feels unnatural. Her lies grow bigger and bigger: her dad’s a pilot, she lives in a mansion etc. until she tells the other girls – the delightfully earnest Anne as Jel (sweet Jel…) and Martin's Soph in a intensely clever, something-going-on-behind-the-eyes performance – that she’s seen the Woodsman from the story.


And it’s genuinely convincing. I find myself sat there flip-flopping along with the girls, not sure whether to believe Ellie or not. You don't believe that she lives in a mansion, that's ridiculous... But maybe she did see the Woodsman from the story..? Part of you wants to believe. Because it’s fun. That’s why we play along with the creepypastas, because it's fun. Because everyone knows it’s fake and harmless. It’s just the internet. And even then, I’ve had arguments with my boyfriend after reading him a creepy story off Reddit and swearing it’s true just because the writer says so. “Well yeah, everything on r/nosleep is fake. But I found this on r/LetsNotMeet* so it’s got to be real. Those are the rules of the board. It has to be a true story."


* r/LetsNotMeet is a board for creepy, true stories of creepy encounters with people. Fiction is not allowed, even if it's pretending to be real like on r/nosleep. (But still makes its way in occasionally.)

It’s only when the girls begin to attribute a real crime in their community - a missing girl - with the Whistling Woodsman do we start to see the cracks: we’re used to seeing this make-believe online. Armchair detectives sat around pulling evidence of their theories from different corners of the internet. But when we’re seeing it played out in real life, it’s absurd, disturbing. Where does the story end and real life begin?


And, as it turns out, theatre is just as perfect a platform for these stories as the internet. It’s halfway between truth and pretend. I’m sat feeling the cold of the room and the guy in the audience opposite me dropped his Coke can onto the stage and the actors are kicking it around like it’s part of their world... because it is part of their world. It’s immediate and real and very clever. And the play actually suffers a little bit when the characters are just reading the online stories to each other. The right-now-ness of it falls away and we’re left with just the story. Just the lies and pretend without the all-important truth.


As Jel says in the play, “I know you wanted it to be real, but I don’t think it is.”

Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

But when the play is successful at its truth tugs, it dredges up little clots of real horror (emphasis on real) that genuinely chills. The horror of being a teenager; the constant fear and insecurity and looking around to check if anybody else noticed you just did or said that really embarrassing thing. An eyelash curler becomes some sort of primitive torture device. A glob of bubble-gum in Jel's hair is treated like a deep wound caused by a madman with a knife or a werewolf’s bite. There is palpable social trauma when Soph gets her first period at one of the girls’ sleepovers. In the most disturbing scene of the play – even more so than the very end scene that I won't spoil – Ellie force-feeds the vegetarian Jel a chicken nugget. Straddling her stomach, pinning her down like a bloodthirsty demon conjured by sleep paralysis, she holds her nose and forces it into her mouth, clamping it shut with her hand until it's chewed to pieces.


And the choice of creepypastas to pull inspiration from also speak to this adolescent terror. The opening story comes from the motherland of horror folklore, Japan, and is inspired by its facially-scarred Kuchisake-onna spirit. It is said she kills anyone who says she is not beautiful with a pair of scissors (I see what you did there..!) and cuts open the face of anyone who says that she is, so they can look like her. An old ghost story, but one pertinent for the age of selfies, FaceTune, beauty influencers and all the insecurities that come with them.


Further teenage horror is conjured up by The Russian Sleep Experiment - one of the more well-known creepypastas. A story about the darkness we have hidden inside us that can be unleashed if only we let it take us over. In the context of these 13-year-olds, it feels like a portent to the rage that comes with puberty - the rage that Ellie is already beginning to experience. The fears of what you would do if you let your hormonal anger or desire to fit in get the better of you. Something the girls themselves experience at the play's close.


And the Whistling Woodsman – to my knowledge an original story – seems to have been inspired by the story (the actually possibly genuinely true story! But maybe I’m falling into that trap again…) of The Whistler, whose bone-tingling whistle (with an identical two-note ‘tune’ to the one in the play) has followed its teller from teenage life into adulthood. The Woodsman in the story is a similarly indefinable figure: are they a killer or a protector? As the characters shift personalities to fit their surroundings and relationships to each other, they begin to feel just as ineffable as the monster in their story.


I once heard somebody say that old fairy tales are about the dangers of nature, the things that are hiding out there in the woods and the wild. Stories to protect people in an age before industrialisation, where wilderness was a real danger. Urban legends, therefore, have sprung up in recent years about the dangers of the city: murderers hiding in plain sight, dodgy cons, gang initiations and so on. It would therefore seemingly follow that creepypastas are about the dangers of the internet, a space where you can never know who somebody really is or if they’re telling the truth. But in this instance, these stories become about the dangers of being a teenager growing up online: losing your old, childhood-self behind. Self-image, anxiety and worth. Growing up and gaining responsibility for yourself, your own safety.

Again, however, it is in its excellent grappling with truth-telling that the play falters a bit for me. While the individual scenes and characters are excellently constructed – original, natural, sinister and truthful – the overall plot and framework tends to follow well-trodden tropes, which leads to the play having less of an impact at its end. It lost a bit of this element of reality and truth by falling occasionally to storytelling conventions. In this sense, the play almost did too well in some instances by building up such a complex spiderweb of themes and characters, such intricate and clever individual scenes (like the chicken nugget moment), that I was a little disappointed by its framework not quite matching up. This is, of course, an incredibly difficult task when dealing with a high-school, teenage setting, and so I absolutely commend Hennessy and Atkinson for managing to create something that still feels so unique and exciting while still utilising familiar tropes - perhaps that was the whole point. With all that being said, I was gripped throughout: screwing up my face in ‘eek’ness at all the right parts and screwing up my face in laughter at all the right parts.


Because this play is funny. Like actually really very funny. Just like in A Hundred Words For Snow, Hennessy has a talent for writing deadpan one-liners (mostly delivered by Jel in this case. Sweet Jel…) that are genuinely very witty, but never so heavy-handed that we can hear the writer talking through their characters.

Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

When putting together this review, I asked a few friends to submit stories about stories. The stories about the stories that sat at the back of their minds for days, nights, months. Slowly knotting up the fear in their brain into a big unloosenable lump. I was expecting “humans can lick too” and “the call is coming from inside the house” - stories we all know from sleepovers - but (for the most part) it was stories that were made up by someone they know. A story told for the purpose of scaring them in particular. Or one they told themselves and became convinced of.


Stories that straddle the line between real and pretend because they took place on your street or back garden or bedroom or were connected to a familiar local culture. (And apparently a lot of bike bells?)


The horror of Something Awful terrifies because it’s real. It isn’t the whistled tunes in the woods or the sleepless prisoners going mad in a Russian prison somewhere. It isn’t a man/goat hybrid sneaking up on your campsite. It isn’t a thin, pale man with no face who lives in a mansion in the woods.


It’s just us.

I meet a friend briefly for a drink in the Vaults bar after the show, before heading back with him on the train. He gets off a few stops before me and my phone runs out of charge somewhere around Vauxhall. So, I walk home in silence from the station. Up the high street past Tesco, take a shortcut through some residential roads, past the church, back onto the high street and do that weird run/walk across the zebra crossing over to my street.


It’s January and still dark and the streetlamps are far apart. There are big patches of blackness between each smattering of light. And, because I can’t listen to my music, I can hear every one of my footsteps on the paving slabs.


There’s a small gust of wind and a twig scrapes against grit as it clatters off the curb into the road.

I see it move, I see where the sound came from.


But, just for a second, I think it's fingernails on the pavement.



Thank you to...

Ellen Victoria (floatinghand124)

Ortensia Fioravanti (movingchairs09)

Simon Marshall (birdcagesfromitaly)

Jem Venn (jemvenn)

Joe Miller (seahorsefan)

Emily Johnson (rockinwelshgirl)

and Katherine Lea (klea)

...for telling me their stories.


Jem Venn, as always, also provided the gorgeous illustration for this post.

You can find her on Instagram or her website.

  • fergus church.

(or, ‘choose your own teenage trauma’ - a quasi-review of the National Theatre's production of The Ocean At The End of the Lane.)


This is a choose-your-own adventure story.


It felt fitting for both the fantastical nature of the story and for the tabletop rpgs I played on most of my spare weekends around the time this series of anecdotes takes place.


At the end of most story moments, there is a choice between various options, follow the number to find the next relevant paragraph and continue on from there. It might not work - I’ve never written one of these before. You also may 'lose' and/or die, in which case, go back to the previous paragraph and try to make better choices next time.


Your tale begins on the 16th June 2013 and ends on the day you are reading this blog post.


You are playing as 17-year-old me.


You are acne-ridden, nerdy and a bit lonely. You also have a bad haircut and not much discernible fashion sense. You play video games or D&D most weekends and wake up at 5am most weekdays to finish your homework before school.


You are a big fan of Neil Gaiman and have ordered a copy of his upcoming book The Ocean At The End Of The Lane a few days ago.


Begin at paragraph 1…



- 1 -

You are a spotty teenager. You have tried every commercial anti-acne product on the market and have turned to the doctor to seek some medical advice. The doctor gives you some cream, which doesn’t work. You go back to the doctor. The doctor gives you some pills, which work for a little bit, then eventually stop working. You go back to the doctor. The doctor gives you some more pills which are usually used to treat UTIs. You don’t know what a UTI is but apparently the pills are fab for acne. You bring the pills home with you. Go to 10 to take the pills or go to 6 to not take the pills.


- 2 -

You put the book away for a moment to slather some weird-smelling anti-histamine cream onto your hives. You wonder why bad things happen to good people. You wonder why people at school don’t want to hang out with you as you slather cream into your acne-medication-induced rash. You wash your hands and get into bed with your book ready to start reading. Go to 18.


- 3 -

Your acne gets so bad that eventually you stop going to school because why would you do that to yourself? You become an acne-ridden hermit, never leaving your bedroom, and live out the rest of your life not showing your face to the outside world and never discovering that your copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane arrived and is sitting in the hall. Make better choices. Go back.


- 4 -

You decide not to buy the book and waste your holiday money on a book you already own. Probably the sensible option. Go to 22.


- 5 -

You spend the rest of the day reading and finish the book in one go. You hope you won’t forget any of your favourite moments from not marking your favourite pages but you’re sure that you won’t. By the end of the day, your hives are clearing up and when you wake up the next morning, your skin is clear! Apart from the acne still all over your face. But the hives are gone! You’re up at 5am writing a homework essay for your English class later that day. A month later you spend the days revising. A month after that you take your AS Levels. Then you go on holiday with your family. You keep thinking about the book. Go to 20.


- 6 -

You don’t take the pills. Over the next few days your acne – unimpeded by prescription drugs – begins to resemble a third-degree sunburn. It feels like one too. Go to 10 to take the damn pills or go to 3 to keep leaving it.


- 7 -

Cool of you to assume this was a possible option. Go back to 28 and quit dreaming.


- 8 -

The lights go down and the play begins. It’s directed by Katy Rudd who did The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Pinocchio so you know a little bit what to expect. Gorgeous puppetry and ingenious stagecraft evoking the realistically magic aspect of the book that resonated so much with you as a kid. What you don’t expect is to be fully taken into a world that has only existed in your head for six years. Go to 21 to visit the Hempstocks’ kitchen. Go to 29 to bind the flea. Go to 12 for a swim in the ocean.


- 9 -

You truly freak the fuck out and immediately open every single performance's seating plan in a new tab to compare available seats. Your boyfriend isn’t picking up the phone or answering your messages because he’s at work. You curse him for not planning his life around your personal schedule. You click through the dates that aren’t sold out and every show only has single seats dotted about. Your boyfriend is going to kill you if you can’t get these when you promised you would sort it but he’s not answering the phone so technically it’s his fault? You manage to find one date – the 5th December – which is the only show left with two seats next to each other. You immediately panic-book these and don’t even really check where they are. The confirmation email comes through. Your boyfriend replies, What’s up? You’re just glad you stayed so calm and collected the entire time. Go to 23.


- 10 -

You take the pills and miraculously, your acne begins to clear up within just a few days! You are very excited about this as last week, a kid at the primary school you volunteer at asked you what was wrong with your face. A few days pass, however, and you notice some strange red marks on your arms when getting changed for bed. In the morning, your whole body and face is covered in hives. You have had an allergic reaction to your acne medication. Your mum lets you take the day off school. Go to 16.


- 11 -

You aren’t really sure how you ended up here. When you were writing this blog, you forgot to include a choice that led to number 11 and wrote this instead. You realise the only way you could be reading this is if you were cheating and not playing the game properly. You immediately decide to go back to whatever number you were on before. Or start the game from scratch at 1. You are ashamed at your cheating. You feel sorry for yourself.


- 12 -

You dive into the ocean and it’s six years ago and you’re in bed with hives after an allergic reaction to your acne medication. You watch Samuel Blenkin as the boy answering back to Pippa Nixon’s incredible, terrifying Ursula (who, along with Ruth Wilson in the BBC His Dark Materials adaptation, apparently proves that you should never trust someone with that exact pristine haircut.) You start to scratch your arm and look down at them in the audience half-light, expecting to see them red and allergic. You want to run out, covered in rashes, and rage at all the grown-ups who don’t listen and, once that’s done, run to your kid best friend’s house to run around the back garden and have a sleepover. You remember that your kid best friend is a grown up as well now and that you’re a grown up too and you’re pulled out of the ocean by your collar and you’re drowning in the air of dry land. You could save yourself. You could go back to 1 and try it all again. Maybe it will be different this time. You could make better choices. Keep going back to the start when you mess up. But that’s not the point of the play or, even, the book. You just have to get on with it, find the wonder from your childhood memories again. Because it’s not gone anywhere, we have. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.


- 13 -

You are very itchy but start reading anyway. You open the book and immediately are so invested in the story that you don’t realise that you’re scratching your arms to get rid of the itchiness. Your mum comes in, sees the unopened anti histamine cream on your desk and you scratching. She tells you off and confiscates the book. Go to 2 to put on the cream or go to 17 if you cba.


- 14 -

You spend the rest of the day reading and finish the book in one go. Along the way, scared of writing in it, you have marked the pages using some colourful paperclips you found in a drawer. A blue paperclip tears a little corner of the book but in the moment, you don’t mind. When the book is finished, you try to close it but can’t because the pages are fat with paperclips. You decide to just take them out and instead place little pieces of ripped up paper in between the pages that resonate. By the end of the day, your hives are clearing up and when you wake up the next morning, your skin is clear apart from the acne still all over your face. You’re up at 5am writing a homework essay for your English class later that day. A month later you spend the days revising. A month after that you take your AS Levels. Then you go on holiday with your family. You keep thinking about the book. Go to 20.


- 15 -

You get in there early and manage to book two excellent seats for the show. It is a completely stress-free affair and there are multiple options for you and your boyfriend (who also loves the book after you introduced it to him) to sit together. Well done for being so on it with things like this. You’re a star. Your boyfriend is really happy that the tickets are safely purchased and I can’t emphasise enough how much of a stress-free affair booking these tickets ended up being. Go to 23, you gorgeous, successful, organised person whose procrastination will never get in the way of your career success. I’m so proud of you.


- 16 -

You are in bed feeling very sorry for yourself when your mum comes upstairs with a package that’s just been posted. It’s your copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane that you ordered last week. You didn’t even realise today was the day it was published. You scratch at your arms. Your mum gives you some cream for your hives. Go to 2 to put on the cream or go to 13 to start reading straight away.


- 17 -

Your mum goes off with the book but leaves the cream there. You lie in bed. Bored. Scratching. You think you notice your hives getting a bit worse. If you wanted, you could go to 2 to put on your cream but you could also be stubborn. You are stubborn. But you’re also bored. You think about opening up the bottle of cream and going to 2 but maybe you think twice about it. You stay in your room for the rest of the day and never go to 2 and never put your cream on. You never read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane because you never get it back off your mum. You never write this post because you never read the book. You live the rest of your life with hives maybe? Just put the bloody cream on.


- 18 -

You open the book and begin reading. You slowly fall into the world of Lettie and her duckpond. The flea. Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. Porridge with jam stirred into it. Monsters and ordinary magic and the farm down the lane. You realise when you stop reading to have some lunch that this is the first, proper, real, grown up book you’ve ever read and it’s a book about a five-year-old. You decide before you’ve even finished it that it’s your favourite book. You think you should maybe start marking the sentences that you couldn’t even close your eyes to blink while reading but also are too scared to ruin this new book. Go to 14 to mark the moments, go to 5 to leave it and risk forgetting.


- 19 -

Niiiice. V frugal. Probably sensible. This decision will avoid a small bicker with your boyfriend in early 2019 when he finds out that you own a much nicer paperback edition than the one he has. Good choice. Go to 24.


- 20 -

You are on holiday with your family when you go into a bookshop. You see a copy of - you think - the American edition of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. The cover is much nicer than your UK one back home. The book is much thinner because the font is a bit smaller. The edges are deckled (but at the time you don’t know what deckled means – you think the edges are just cool and torn-looking.) You don’t have much holiday money left but you can afford it and want to buy it. Go to 25 to buy it or go to 4 to leave it.


- 21 -

The Hempstocks’ kitchen is exactly how you’d imagined it without realising you'd furnished it a certain way. An old wagon for a table. A crackling fire stove. Dried plants hanging from the ceiling. The kitchen is cramped and warm and cosy despite the stage being physically wide and fairly bare. And the women that occupy it are every bit the Hempstocks that have quietly been your heroes since you were a teenager. Carlyss Peer is strict and loving and distant and close as Mrs Hempstock. Josie Walker is powerful and mysterious and fiercely kind as Old Mrs Hempstock. And Marli Siu’s Lettie feels like you’re seeing an old friend in their school play. You want to get out of your seat, ’scuse-me your way up the aisle and onto the stage to hold her hand. The three women turn you into a kid. You want to chat with Carlyss at her kitchen table, swinging your feet in your Velcro school shoes that don’t quite touch the floor. You want to hear Josie’s stories about the olden days. The things she got up to. The things even she doesn’t remember. And you want to play with Marli in the back garden until it gets dark and your mum’s in the hall calling you in because it’s time to go home now and to say thank you for having me. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.


- 22 -

It’s a few years later. You’ve since reread both your editions once each. You now work at Waterstones as a bookseller. You spend time finding that book with a red cover for strangers. You spend time building to-scale cardboard replicas of Baba Yaga’s house for window displays. You have a 50% discount off all books. You spend time abusing this discount. One day, while ordering a copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane for a customer after recommending it to them, you notice there is a paperback edition you’ve never seen before. The paperback normally on the shelf is the same cover as your original UK edition. This one is a beautiful illustration of two ghostly children in the woods. That’s the Christmas edition, says your cool Northern Irish colleague when you ask her about it. It’s like July but available to order. Do you order a copy? You only make a little bit more than minimum wage so probably shouldn’t. Go to 27 to order it or 19 to not order it.


- 23 -

It’s the 5th December. You meet up with a couple of friends before the show for a quick dinner in the fancy new National burger bar. There aren’t any free seats because every table for four has a single person on it with a Diet Coke and a laptop. You start to wonder if the staff would mind you eating your burger on the other side of the building but your boyfriend manages to find a table hidden away in the corner of the burger bar because he’s brilliant and ultimately a problem solver. (You are a problem creator.) The burgers are pretty good. You would recommend the new burger bar to friends. You buy a programme, sniff it – as is tradition because it smells like crayons – then head into the theatre to take your seats, which actually have a very nice view of the stage if you do say so yourself. There is a little girl dressed in a Santa’s elf onesie sat in front of you with her mum. You think this is really lovely until you remember the scene in the book where two characters have sex in a window. You’ll panic and hope that they’ve somehow made it more family friendly. Go to 8.


- 24 -

You’ve left Waterstones to work in film production which is nice but you do miss the discount. The National announce their new season and right at the bottom of the list you see an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. You are very excited about this but also a bit sad and annoyed because btw you’re a playwright now and it was a secret dream of yours to one day write the stage version of the book. You tweet just about your annoyance because being earnestly excited about something isn’t allowed on social media. Do you book tickets for it straight away? Go to 15 to book tickets right now or 28 if you think nah I’ll leave it for now, I’ve got six months to buy em, it’ll be chill.


- 25 -

You pick up the book and go to take it to the till. Don’t you already have that? asks your sister. Yeah, but this edition is so nice, you reply. Your sister thinks it is a bad financial decision to buy a book you already own. Not too late to reconsider and go to 4? But you ignore her and buy the book anyway. The cover is a rough matte and makes a washy-scrapey sound like water on sand when you brush your hand over it. Go to 22.


- 26 -

You give up on seeing the show. Everyone on social media seems to be really enjoying it though so you’re a bit gutted. You end up never writing this blog post but you’re still reading it now. You cause a paradox and the universe rips itself apart from the inside out. All because you couldn’t get your shit together. Make better choices. Go back to 28.


- 27 -

You order the book. It arrives a few days later and you pay for it on your lunch break. It costs less than a fiver with your discount. You will miss this discount a lot when you leave Waterstones five months later. You decide to reread the paperback as you haven’t read your favourite book in a while. You sit and read it in the tiny staff room in the basement under flickering fluorescent lights and a damp ceiling that occasionally drops chunks of itself onto your head. You eat some soup and splash a bit on the page but you don't mind much because it's a paperback, babyyy. The book draws you in even more than it did when you read it five years before. You’re older now and have a bit more fashion sense and a better haircut and are a bit less of an idiot but not by much. Rereading this book spurs you on to finish reading all of Neil Gaiman’s books, which you do. You tweet about this and Neil Gaiman likes the tweet and you tweet about the fact that he liked it. Go to 24.


- 28 -

You wait until the week before the show before getting round to buying the tickets. You keep meaning to but life just keeps getting in the way, yknow? Life is things like playing Zelda, taking care of a plant, not writing the play you're meant to be writing and starting a blog instead. You eventually manage to scrounge up some free time somewhere in your hectic schedule to spend five minutes booking tickets to see the play. You go on the National’s website and click through to The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, where you see that every single show is Limited Availability or Sold Out. Your animalistic ticket-booking senses kick into overdrive – this was literally the production you were most excited to see all year. Go to 7 to book the tickets in your typical calm and collected manner, go to 26 to give up on seeing the show completely or go to 9 to just basically panic.


- 29 -

The monsters in the play are terrifying. Animalistic, stretchy, blubbery, sticky, sharp claws and tongue, scratchy, poisonous, drippy, sweaty, boily, warty and real. You feel a genuine thrilling terror and jump out of your skin at one point in Act 2. The little girl in front of you holds her mum’s hand, who puts an arm round and whispers something. You are glad that they toned down the earlier adult scene from the book but wonder whether this show is appropriate for children anyway. It’s full of wonder and adventure and excitement, yes. It’s got beautiful puppets and laughs and ABBA (genuinely.) But do those things make it kid-friendly? The National definitely seem to be aiming it towards families in their marketing and by programming it over the holidays. And you do genuinely think it’s a great show to take your kids too. But ultimately, you have always thought of the story as a fairy tale for grown-ups. Folktales exist to teach lessons, almost always to kids – don’t stray from the path, don’t talk to strangers, be nice to your abusive step-family and you’ll be rewarded with some killer shoes and a prince – but the lessons Ocean teaches are ones that grown-ups need: your parents are people too and they are flawed; ordinary everyday life is miraculous and magical in itself; the best way to get rid of pests is through physical theatre. One particular lesson of the show resonates with you in this particular retelling, given its timeliness around the election: all villains think that what they are doing is good. You aren't sure whether this is comforting or terrifying. The play handles all these lessons with thoughtfulness, danger and delicacy, like all the most gripping fairy tales. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.


- 30 -

You leave the theatre. You walk back to Waterloo slowly with your boyfriend and talk about the play. What they changed from the book and what they kept the same. You're laughing, being deep and stupid in the same breath, and it's easy and cosy. You think if anyone’s like a kid best friend, it’s him. Stick him in some wellies and a raincoat and he could be the Lettie Hempstock you spent years wanting. Just a bit more beardy.


You go into the station. What should my next blog post be about? you ask him.

Write one about me, he says. He’s joking. But you think it’s a good idea.

Maybe one day, you say.


And now you’re writing your next blog post. You started at midnight and now it’s just after 2. Your sleeping schedule is a bit fucked, though, because you were at a Christmas party late last night.


Now you're chatting to Jem about the art for this month's post.


And now you're doing some final edits.


You could go all the way back to 1, or to any number really, and give it another go. See what’s different. Or you could end it right here. Be happy with the choices you've made. Because that’s what grown-ups do.














Gorgeously illustrated, as always, by my marvellous friend, Jem Venn.

You can find her on Instagram or her website.