10 years ago, Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane was released. Alongside receiving praise for its exploration of self-identity and growing up, it also won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. Now, after a delay due to the pandemic, Joel Horwood and Katy Rudd’s stage adaptation has finally hit the road in all its mesmerising glory.
Returning to his childhood home to attend a funeral, the unnamed protagonist is reminded of a chance encounter with his neighbour Lettie Hempstock on his twelfth birthday. She opens his eyes to the world past the edges of our reality, including the fact that Hempstock farm’s duck pond is an ocean beyond mortal comprehension. Life on the edge isn’t easy though, with eldritch creatures trying to get in, including one that succeeds in invading the protagonist’s home.
Fly Davis’ set design is at once striking and subtle as bracken lines the stage, creating a frame and arch that invites the audience down the paths of pins and needles before the performance even begins. Paule Constable’s lighting helps it melt away perfectly for more isolated moments within the various houses, while also working wonders to transform the stage into the titular ocean.
Anyone familiar with Gaiman’s work will anticipate the creepiness that lies just beneath the surface of his tales. It’s a credit to all involved then that none of this is lost in the transition from page to stage. Of particular note is Finn Caldwell’s puppet choreography and Jamie Harrison’s magic and illusions which produce audible gasps and yelps from the audience when they oome together during the production’s most tense moments.
The Skarthach’s original spider-like form transforms and expands as it’s puppeteered across the stage by the ensemble, turning itself inside out to reveal the human form that will become Ursula toiling within its womb-like interior. Likewise, the use of illusion to depict the pseudo-extra dimensional space that the protagonist’s home becomes is phenomenal. Jherek Bischoff’s initially string and piano soundtrack turns to synthwave here to underscore the unnaturalness of the sequence, and it’s all held together wonderfully by Charlie Brooks who revels in the role of Ursula.
The rest of the cast deliver strong performances across the board too. Trevor Fox carries the buried grief of a father trying to hold things together for his children incredibly, and the moments where he lets his anger flow freely is deeply unsettling. The three Hempstock women play off one another brilliantly. Finty Williams is suitably cooky as Old Mrs. Hempstock while Kemi-Bo Jacobs carries the maternal sensibilities of Ginnie with aplomb. Millie Hikasa blends the child-like elements of Lettie with the frustrations of a being that’s centuries older than she appears wonderfully, even if her west country accents feels a little on the nose.
The National Theatre’s tour of The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been well-worth the wait. It’s a marvellous production that captures the magic of Gaiman’s novel and refuses to scrimp on the heavier themes at play. It’s hard to leave the Festival Theatre without a yearning for lost childhood and slight hope that any puddle on your way could hold an ocean unto itself.