Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere, as staged by Know Theatre using a theatrical adaptation by Robert Kauzlaric, is a nearly three-hour-long epic fantasy that follows the misadventures of a Scotsman named Richard Mayhew. He is an unremarkable financier who plunges into the illusory world of London’s underground — here called “London Below.”
In Neverwhere there are two Londons: the everyday London of reality, London Above; and London Below, a treacherous, anachronistic fantasy world beneath London inhabited by those who have “fallen through the cracks.”
A simple act of kindness kicks off Richard’s adventures into London Below. After finding a mysterious and seriously injured young woman named Door on the street, Richard resists being a bystander and comes to her aid. He is subsequently hurled into a lengthy convoluted quest for truth in Door’s world, London Below. What follows is a hero’s journey that includes the staples of the fantasy genre — a quirky cast of nearly 30 characters, lies, deceit and, of course, self-discovery.
The production, directed by Andrew J. Hungerford and Dan R. Winters, seeks to go beyond the fantasy story to provide an “in” for the audience. The dwellers of London Below are clearly an allegory for the homeless population. In fact, Richard comes to this realization just after his first adventure in London Below. Waking up in his apartment the next day, he finds that no one in London Above can see him, remember him or pay him any attention at all. He is, in short, as invisible as a homeless person can be. But the play is so focused on building the fantasy world of London Below that this socioeconomic commentary never comes into sharp focus. As a result, many extraneous details fall flat.
The production knows the play is a hard sell, so there is a clear attempt to create a fully immersive theatrical experience. Audience members are met at the door with a warning (“Mind the Gap”), and hints of the London Underground tube lead them into Know’s second-floor theater. These subtle touches are creative and fun, but ultimately not enough to transform the play into a fantasy epic that will keep a broad audience engaged and wanting more.
Neverwhere’s fatal flaw is in the writing. The length of the production and the children’s-story-like tropes make it difficult to stay invested. And though laugh-out-loud funny at times, the comedy in the play often feels like a lifeline trying to reel the drowning audience back into the world of London Below.
In terms of the acting, perhaps the strongest of the ensemble is Rory Sheridan, playing Richard in his Know Theatre debut. His consistency in motivation and his ability to pull the audience back to his side help him shine in nearly every scene. He makes the otherwise uninteresting Richard likable, as he absolutely must be or the entire production falls apart.
However, the most delightful moments of the entire play are when sadistic assassin partners Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar steal the stage. The character development and comedic timing that actors Sean P. Mette and Dylan Shelton bring to their roles are superb, and that allows them to steal every scene in which they are featured. But this leaves many of the other characters to fall flat in comparison. Poor accent work, a lack of development and shallow emotions make it difficult for the audience to care about those characters and their journeys.
The production’s expansive and inventive scenic design by Sarah Beth Hall is slightly less chaotic than the play itself. Although at times the staging feels confused and the stage combat clumsy, the standout element of the production is absolutely Noelle Johnston’s costume design. The leather-clad Hunter (Jordan Trovillion) and the feathered Old Bailey (Andrew Ian Adams) are truly creative and quite beautiful. These elements help the audience identify and recognize the massive number of characters (eight of 10 actors play multiple roles) and create a detailed idea of what a place like London Below might actually look and feel like.
Perhaps serious cult fantasy enthusiasts will suspend their disbelief long enough to sustain the length of the production. For others, it will require a meaningful investment.
Neverwhere is presented by Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine through Dec. 17. Tickets/more info: knowtheatre.com.