Staff Writer Evelyn Shepphird reviews National Theatre’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” showing in the Noël Coward theatre until 25 November.
Adolescence, storytelling and memory take centre stage in Joel Horwood’s colourful, imaginative adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s half-metaphorical novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” at the Noël Coward Theatre in Covent Garden.
Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, is a pensive, lyrical work caught half between childhood and adulthood. Upon returning to his childhood home for a funeral, a man attempts to recall why his childhood friend called the duck pond on her property an ocean. The play, adapted by Joel Horwood (“All The Little Things We Crushed” and “Berberian Sound Studio”), uses, among other things, brilliant puppeteering (made by Samuel Wyer) and inspired actors to bring the story to the West End.
“Diving into the ‘Ocean’ initially feels like familiar territory”, writes Tara Prescott-Johnson, a UCLA lecturer and editor of “Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century”. She’s not wrong–the austere darkness and funerary routine of the first scene transition seamlessly into the chaos of adolescent uncertainty. Magic slips in so subtly – it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment disbelief is suspended; the audience’s acceptance of magic isn’t Ozian, so much as it is inevitable.
This is helped, in large part, by the solidity of the cast under the direction of Katy Rudd. Trevor Fox transitions smoothly from a lost, grown-up version of the main character to his father and Keir Ogilvy takes centre stage as the slightly awkward but very endearing main character. His terribly familiar pre-teen physicality is reminiscent of the unique discomfort of growing too tall and too gangly too fast. His awkwardness and desperate confusion are strikingly offset by the fast-paced, bright, confident physicality of his not-quite-human counterpart and friend Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa).
But the most absorbing dynamic is that between Boy and his father. Ogilvy and Fox portray a richly nuanced, emotionally abusive relationship between father and son that lends a gravitas to the piece and invites discussion on how the audience is meant to process the other-worldly elements of the piece. Has Boy really stepped onto a magical farm, or are the mystical components his childhood way of understanding his relationship with his father?
It wouldn’t be a Neil Gaiman story without some sort of eldritch monster figure. The design and choreography of the puppets that fill that role somehow manage to capture that same disjoined physicality and monstrous formlessness that childhood nightmares take. Consequently, the audience suffers a fear reintroduced to them from childhood.
And yet this is not a horror story. Ragged, dark, terrifying monsters are fought off with synthy sequences, clasped hands and spotlights of searingly bright oranges and purples. Childhood classics (C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia”, in particular), inspire brave escapes. Oceans of waving silks and washes of blue lighting envelop the actor and audience in a strikingly hopeful interlude. Imagination, reality, and memory blend in this half-magical retrospective on childhood and there is a completely authentic heart at the centre of the piece. In Neil Gaiman’s words, “The interior landscape is all true. The view from the inside.”
Gaiman has a compelling way of putting into words the adolescent fear of something being too big to grapple with. Hikasa’s Lettie Hempstock reminds the audience that it isn’t left behind in childhood. In a world of incomprehensible, formless anxieties and innumerable geopolitical crises, this message stands out.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” almost seems too personal to recommend. It recalls a perspective on adolescence that’s at once limitless and terrifying, magical and dangerous. It’s not a universally relatable story, both because it seems written for those grown-up children who spent all the time they could with their nose stuck in a book and because the piece itself fits within the distinct genre of magical realism, but it’s undeniably a tour de force. “It was my most personal story”, Neil Gaiman recalls. “I thought that would make it harder for people to bring themselves to, but instead people saw themselves in it.”
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” will be showing at the Noël Coward Theatre in London until 25 November. Get your tickets here.