Based on the Novel by Neil Gaiman
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Directed by Katy Rudd
Stitched and cobbled by the dreams, worlds and endless oceans of countless eyes and experiences, best-selling author of Good Omens, The Sandman, Anansi Boys and American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel Ocean at the End of the Lane recounts the journey of a man on the day of his father’s funeral. Returning to their childhood home, one of sorrow, Gaiman thrusts together heightened reality with their expectant wielding of fantasy to sculpt a tremendously successful tale of friendship, myth and acceptance.
As the National Theatre takes a dip in the endless possibilities of Gaiman’s creativity – hemming together this tour-de-force storytelling yarn into a timeless theatrical bewitchment. With many familiar with the story, and the quality of the material, adaptor Joel Horwood reasonably remains close to the bones of Gaiman’s book – working with director Katy Rudd to instead invest animation and inspiring vision into making Ocean at the End of the Lane an overwhelmingly glorious experience.
The rich intensity of the plot is in capable hands behind the stage, but the central importance of it all occurs on it – as the nameless protagonist, played by Keir Ogilvy, forms a friendship with a (supposedly) young girl at the neighbouring farm, Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa). Their performance is one of a bonded pair in kinship, Lettie’s understanding of the boundaries of this world, and those who would seek to penetrate it, speaks of a young woman wise beyond their years. Yet Hikasa never extinguishes that lustrous youthful presence and draw, while Ogilvy encapsulates the entirety of the show for the audience, a state of curiosity and trepidation. A boy who lost his mother and grapples with the world around them, Ogilvy avoids glaring areas of misunderstanding or alienation, ensuring this nameless boy could be anyone in the theatre.
Continuing Ogilvy’s performance, evolving, Trevor Fox takes a dual performance, both as the unnamed character’s father and as an older version of the boy – matured and returning to the childhood home for a funeral and the loss of something he can’t quite place just yet. Fox shifts from gentile and recognisable to something altogether more menacing with an expert flourish. Completing the family unit, for now, is Laurie Ogden as the boy’s sister, also unnamed. Her petulance and irritations are authentic, never off-putting – just harkening back to any who grew up with a sibling they once quarrelled with but now grasp the importance of the life shared.
The darkness of the forest becomes all the more traversable when tackled together. Mercifully, our nameless protagonist benefits from those who understand the land better than he does. The arcane, though comforting and controlled Old Mrs Hempstock, played with fizz and mystery by Finty Williams, moves with as much grace and control as they speak Horwood’s occasionally humourous script. It carries over to her daughter, Lettie’s mother, Ginnie, who has a touch more edge to their performance, but nevertheless continues an emotional centre as a trio of women who comprehend more of this realm than the boy, or we, can ever hope to grasp.
An advocate for ‘monsters’ – Gaiman’s logic and cognition that in a crafted world of creatures and intimidating visuals, the real pain and anxiety are in grief, abuse and trauma: Charlie Brooks captures this perfectly, serving mightily as a roaring and powerful ‘Flea’ from the edges of the world, but all the more petrifying in the domestic settings where her power comes from a sense of authoritative control and parental manipulation (one only need watch Coraline for confirmation of this fear). All while a terrific ensemble cast act as lucid stagehands, choreography enables something cawing in the distance, something far more ravenous than a ‘Flea’ finding a place in the world.
The production doesn’t shy from Gaiman’s raison d’etre of using the light of innocence and hopes to cast enormous shadows of humanity’s darkest aspects – causing this particular audience to cower and wince in all the right ways imaginable. The erroneously thought playthings of children, toys, puppets, and fiction, are all utilised to evoke a rawness of emotion and, in truth, unpretentious terror. Elements of the script are subject to a content warning or two, particularly of parental manipulation, abuse, and suicide. In the time-tested manner of fairytale, Gaiman’s story and Horwood’s adaptation don’t insult the audience with reservation – but for those looking to bring younger audiences, make sure their familiar with Gaiman’s style of storytelling, or have a cannier maturity to imagery and subjects.
This is visual theatre for the sake of storytelling rather than pulling power for audiences. It’s refreshing and encouraging to see so much natural talent utilised for connection and character rather than cheap (or expensive) sorcery. The seamlessly integrated magic of light, sound and vision forms a trifecta of immersive spookery at the hands of Paule Constable’s lighting, Ian Dickson’s genuinely atmospherically morphing sound scope, and Jherek Bischoff’s music topping it all off to a breathtaking level of quintessence.
Fly Davis’ set which, while striking, is purposefully barren in palette – Constable’s lighting excels in painting vividness into the scene with a scorching intensity or a serene beauty. Time momentarily freezes when colour erupts, enhanced by Steven Hoggett’s movement direction, channelling a rhythmic conjuring. The movement extends to the battles with the antagonistic ‘Flea’, an enormous composite of a nightmare – the design and puppetry are often mind-bogglingly impressive when laced with Jamie Harrison’s illusions, particularly the manipulation of space and light, Samuel Wyer’s puppetry continuing to stamp a mark of respect in the artistry of physical prop crafting – Finn Caldwell combining the use of masks, costume, and puppets so coherently within the story – even when it takes turns into it’s most surreal avenues.
There’s a reason Gaiman’s weaving of fantasy makes them one of the nation’s most significant writers: and one who has captured the imaginations of millions. But Ocean at the End of the Lane at the Festival Theatre isn’t solely for those with a passing interest in the fantastical, this is a piece which speaks to everyone: anyone who has experienced loss, tried to grapple with grief, or at one point saw the world through the eyes of a child. The National Theatre locates the grand sense of theatrical adventure in every page and weaves it into something exquisite. An unquestionable jewel of magnificence, speckled with flecks of darkness, making this production an experience to cherish: you cannot afford to miss this.
Ocean at the End of the Lane runs at The Festival Theatre until April 22nd. Tuesday – Saturday, 19.30pm with matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 14.30pm.
Running time – Two hours and thirty minutes with one interval. Suitable for ages 12+
Tickets begin from £19.50 and may be obtained here.