Wednesday 1 February 2023

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday 31st January 2023

Curve, Leicester


‘It’s a rip in Forever.

Where anything is possible’


In recent years theatre goers have been relishing what has turned out to be a golden era for British literary adaptations. Theatre makers have mined seemingly unadaptable source novels for a spectacle of riches that has brought a new wave of visually and thematically imaginative plays with broad appeal to audiences nationwide. While the West End has profited from recent successes such as the record-breaking Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Sheffield Theatres’ acclaimed Life of Pi, at the forefront of this cultural trend is the National Theatre, proving that they remain champions of innovative, entertaining and accessible art. Building upon such juggernauts as War Horse and Curious Incident, their latest mega-play sees Writer Joel Horwood and Director Katy Rudd bring to life Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The result is an enchanting blend of heartfelt magical realism with more than a touch of whimsy and a delicious dash of horror.

Gaiman’s story focuses on a Boy (played by Daniel Cornish at this performance), who’s world is turned upside down by the Hempstocks, a trigenerational family of magical women. On the day of the Boy’s twelfth birthday his family’s lodger kills himself via carbon monoxide poisoning, stealing the family car and plunging them into crisis. While his widowed Father works extra shifts to make ends meet, he urges Boy to be a grown up. This mainly involves feigning stoicism and outright lying to protect his younger Sister (Laurie Ogden). Rejecting this, the Boy finds adventure and escape via his new friend Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa) and her otherworldly farm. For a story featuring wormholes, shapeshifting ‘Fleas’ and journeys through an ocean of eternity the plot could seem impenetrably dense, however in Horwood and Rudd’s hands the piece never seems overcomplicated or abstract, thanks to some deftly deployed exposition and excellent pacing.

The story is framed as a memory play, beginning and ending with the grown-up Boy reminiscing about his visits to the farm, aided by a familiar yet strange figure. The blurred lines between memory, imagination and reality are exquisitely played upon by Gaiman, Horwood and Rudd – a dream isn’t just a dream, if a person imagines something it exists as it is real to that person. Similarly, the imagined magic of stories (notably, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are utilised by Gaiman and co. as powerful forces against both real and imagined monsters – Boy reads every night to conquer his fear of the dark, but he later uses these stories he’s come to memorize to help him evade a monster that has infiltrated his home, in a feat of simple but gratifying ingenuity. The story is a perfect fit for theatre, where we likewise experience the boundary-blurring, imagination-enriching mesh of the actual and the fantastical.

Rudd makes fine use of Steven Hoggett’s movement direction and Samuel Wyer’s puppetry, animating high-concept theories and phantasmagorical creatures with some truly captivating stagecraft. There’s also a great scene featuring misdirection trickery, wherein multiple Ursulas (Charlie Brooks) appear to torment the Boy. Fly Davis’s enchanted wood set is atmospheric, shifting from being gnarly and imposing to embodying an ethereal dreamscape. I was also struck by Jherek Bischoff’s original music – not something that often stands out in a play – but, like Adrian Sutton’s scores for War Horse and Curious Incident, the music here feels like a character in its own right. From 80’s synths to melting string harmonies and menacing rhythms, Bischoff enhances the action and feeling presented onstage.

It is telling that amid all the supernatural goings-on (mind-reading, parasitic nannies; intergalactic vultures) and all their theatrical realisation, it is the mundane horrors in Ocean that prove most nightmarish, such as the punishment dealt to the Boy by his Father for disobeying him, and the eery image of the suicidal lodger, hosepipe affixed to his face like an uncanny gasmask. Gaiman’s story succeeds because the magic in the plot is so deeply rooted in the real-life issues of 1980’s working-class Britain; Boy first suspects that his new friend is not as she seems when he regurgitates a fifty pence piece in his sleep, and the demonic Ursula feeds off the family’s financial hardship and the want of a wife/mother figure. The tale is also an excellent example of a coming-of-age narrative; we are repeatedly reminded that nothing is as it appears on the outside, most poignantly in the case of grown-ups merely being the children they always were, trapped in an adult shell of deception. Growing up is a pervasive theme amongst young adult literature, and from the juxtaposition of Boy refusing to ‘be a man’ and Lettie’s anguish at being unable to grow older, to the ways that the older Boy remembers and mis-remembers his fantastical childhood, here it is addressed with an exhilarating mix of wonder and terror.

While the themes and 80’s setting of Ocean are strikingly reminiscent of smash-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Horwood has ensured that the play retains Gaiman’s very British sensibilities. Memorable lines are peppered throughout the play, from the whimsical (‘Monsters are things that everyone is scared of – Then what are monsters scared of?’) to some wonderfully droll one liners from Finty Williams’ matriarchal Old Mrs Hempstock (‘A cup of tea is a human right’; ‘Do you think she’d do something so common as die?’). The National Theatre has once again produced a play that will appeal to all ages (although very young children may be a little too frightened) and perfectly marries plot, spectacle and feeling. Gaiman has articulated the very personal yet universal experiences of loss, love, hardship and change, with a masterly touch. The bittersweet ending certainly leaves audiences enamoured with the characters and wishing to linger in the uncanny world of the Hempstocks a while longer.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane plays at Curve until 11th February.

For full tour details please visit: 

The cast of Ocean at the End of the Lane
Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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