Neil Gaiman’s fantasy story is adapted into a theatrical spectacle with a heart
Maybe, like me, you’ve never got around to seeing The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Yes, it has been around a while. It opened at the National Theatre in 2019, then Covid intervened. Then it was revived and a tour throughout this year has finally seen it wash up at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End. There have been plenty of opportunities, so what’s your excuse?
Let me give you mine. It’s a children’s show, or even if it’s not, it’s a fantasy, or even if it is rooted in real life, it’s all spectacle and no heart. Well, I’ve finally seen it, and I can tell you, none of these excuses hold up.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a stage adaptation of a novel by Neil Gaiman. The idea of bringing this story to the stage came from a true theatre person: Katy Rudd. She knows theatre, she loves theatre and she knows how to make a magical show.
I’ve got to be careful here because the word ‘magical’ is loaded. There is a whole literary genre known as magical realism, wherein an ostensibly real world has unnatural things going on. Then there’s the magic that is more properly called ‘tricks’, which theatre is full of. Then again, there is the magic of theatre that involves no tricks but somehow transports you into another world.
All these forms of magic combine in this production.
The story concerns a child. So is it a children’s show? Well, older children will probably enjoy it, but the answer is emphatically ‘no’. It’s very much about how we as adults lose our ability to see beyond the world in front of us and enter into the world of imagination.
We meet a particular adult who is reminded of something that happened to him as a child- or may have happened. Cut to an unhappy 12 year old, already regarded as weird because he seems to prefer books to people, who has gone through the trauma of losing his mother. Keir Ogilvy is magnificent in this part, a stuttering, gangling, wide-eyed performance.
He meets a strange girl called Lettie, a Peter Pan like character played with energy and passion by Millie Hikasa. He also gets acquainted with her mother and grandmother, who seem to know things well beyond the time and space they occupy.
Thus begins a fantastic adventure that takes place on their farm and in his house.
So, yes, it is fantasy but not Star Wars or Marvel Universe fantasy. This is the everyday world you and I might occupy, suddenly host to strange goings on.
Like a monster from another parallel world being let in ours and wreaking havoc. And what a monster. Guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Until it is personified in the form of a sinister lodger- Ursula, played by Charlie Brooks, with mad eyes and a steely smile). Then the battle begins.
The stage is filled with the kind of spectacle, that is far more impressive than cinema CGI because it is being created before your eyes with smoke and coloured lights and swirling cloths and people in costumes.
There is no better moment of stage
magic than when Ursula disappears through a door stage right and instantly reappears through another door stage left. Then more and more doors appear with Ursula appearing here there and everywhere until your brain is overwhelmed. Members of the audience were gasping with astonishment.
And in this eulogy to theatre, we are shown how some of the magic works- we see the ensemble of ‘stage hands’ who carry characters through the air when they are flying, falling or swimming; or moments when a scene ends and the stage hands move in to remove scenery only to find the characters decide to carry on talking, so they pause and replace the props. We see the mechanics, but still imagine it to be ‘real’. I use the word advisedly since, as this play reminds us, your perception of reality, present and past, will be different to mine.
The point is, like all art forms, theatre stimulates our imagination, then requires our imagination in order for it to work. And, as this story underlines, imagination is what enables us to see the truth about the world and how to change it,
If it were purely to enjoy the magic of theatre, I would recommend seeing this show. But there is more, much more, and that’s in the power of the storytelling. The boy regularly quotes from The Chronicles Of Narnia but also Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan.
Like many great stories, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane engages the heart as it takes us into the world of this lonely young misfit. It leaves us simultaneously uplifted and sad.
It is irrelevant whether the events really happened or were invented as a way of coping with an unfriendly world. The story of threatening monsters, benevolent witches, and a faithful friend is grippingly real for him, as it is for us.
Neil Gaiman is one of the great storytellers, and all praise to Joel Horwood too for adapting the story into two and bit hours of character-driven adventure.
The other actors deserve recognition. Trevor Fox, who plays the boy’s father and the boy as an adult, is as funny, melancholy and eccentric as adults so often are in children’s eyes. Laurie Ogden is suitably annoying and obnoxious as the boy’s sister. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is Lettie’s gentle, loving mother. Finty Williams makes her grandmother seem as old as the hills but has a glint in her eyes that show she is as sharp as a brand new knife.
While I’m giving credits, I must praise- or more properly bow down to- set designer Fly Davis, Costume and Puppet Designer Samuel Wyer, Lighting designer Paule Constable, and Magic and illusions director Jamie Harrison.
So, even if you normally shun shows about children, or flee from fantasy fiction, or sidestep spectacle, I urge you to make an exception and go to the Noel Coward Theatre to see this 5 star show about the power of storytelling.