The Ocean at the End of the Lane || National Theatre

A gripping and heart-wrenching tale of friendship and bravery produced by the National Theatre; an absolutely must see for Neil Gaiman fans. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane 

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman || adapted by Joel Horwood || directed by Katy Rudd

Set to hit the west end this October

I went to see The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury during its UK tour and was absolutely blown away by it, from the incredible cast to the ingenious sets this truly is the most dynamic and chilling thing I’ve ever seen as this kind of production. The story itself is based heavily on the beloved book by Neil Gaiman, first published in 2013, the novel took the publishing world by storm and winning numerous award including a National Book Award, Kirkus reviews best book of the year and reached the New York Times best seller list no 1. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows “Boy” a young boy living with his father and younger sister after the loss of their mother, and Lettie who lives with her mother and grandmother on the farm on which most of the play is set. The story starts at the meeting of Boy and Lettie after a traumatic event which awakens a “flea” or lost entity trying to cross between worlds; causing havoc in the lives of everyone involved. We follow Lettie and Boy through their adventures of protecting their families and their friendship in this gripping and heart wrenching story. At its core this is a story of childhood, of the imagination and bravery we have as children and how this shapes the way we process love, and, if needs be, grief. The tale explores on a very deep level how children deal with things that we perceive as being beyond their maturity and emotional capacity, something most of us will have experiences in one way or another as children. The production was first shown in December of 2019 —  before lockdown and then again in November before settling in the west end in October 2021. The production comes almost a decade after the book’s first publication in 2013, the production stays very loyal to its literary predecessor; it's clear that Neil Gaiman was worked with closely throughout the process. Neil Gaiman originally wrote the novel for his wife, Amanda Palmer, as a way to convey to her his experiences as a child and the emotions he felt so strongly; the story being shared is a deeply personal one, while not being autobiographical, glimpses of Neil Gaiman can definitely be seen in Boy. 

I first read the book around four years ago and it was one of the novels that really made me fall in love with Neil Gaiman’s work. He has such a distinctive voice and atmosphere that has been expertly carried across to the stage. Despite loving the book I’d forgotten the vast majority of the plot and I still had to go through all of the pain and joy of seeing the story for the first time. As soon as the production was announced it was very high on my list to see and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The plot stays incredibly close to that of the book and this was a way to bring the book to life, rather than to profit off of its success. I was absolutely blown away by the production; the artistry was so unbelievable and I was genuinely quite scared at points! The story itself is chilling so to have it brought to life so skillfully and beautifully made for a truly immersive feeling of fear. 

The artistry that was used to bring the production alive was truly phenomenal from the use of the space to the soundtrack the effect was all consuming; the costumes were fairly simple, reflecting everyday clothes as in many ways that’s what the play is about, the beauty of the mundane and everyday, they wear things we would see on the street which emphasises this celebration of the mundane and conveys the feeling of this being a timeless childlike memory. The production has won an Olivier Award for best lighting and that’s certainly well deserved, the entire auditorium was filled with strobe lights and flashes which accompanied an intense sound-scape, made up of classical music, crashes, and bangs. The cast was small, consisting of the main six characters and then an additional six actors who did several things, from moving sets to acting as one terrifying entity. The cohesion they had was truly stunning and for me was one of the things that bought the performance together. The music was slightly too loud for my liking. As atmospheric as it was when your seats are actually shaking from the bass it feels a little too much. 

On a deeper level the story is in many ways about grief and how we process this, when we meet Boy he’s recently lost his mother, his family in many ways represents the different ways we process grief, boy’s younger sister is still a very young child and is sheltered in many ways from this trauma but is still aware of the unspeakable sadness that shrouds her family. Boy’s dad has lost himself and it takes all of his energy to keep up a facade for his children while Boy hides in stories that remind him of his mother. The story is about the unbelievable strength we have as children when we need it and the endless bravery, both of which were often lost in adulthood. Viewing the story with a few extra years of maturity has made me see it in a completely different light, when I first read the novel I took it on on face value but on deeper analysis the story is a poignant and evocative piece which doesn’t skirt around themes of grief and suffering but allows us to see them through the eyes of the most innocent. 

The production is truly a spectacle and if you can cope with the noise and the goose bumps then it’s a must see for all Neil Gaiman fans. 

Header Image Credit: National Theatre

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1 Comments

  • Charlotte Ralph

    On 23 November 2023, 14:41 Charlotte Ralph commented:

    Another fantastic review Rose!
    Having not read the book this production is based on, your review has given me enough information to gain a real understanding of what I can expect from this play, without giving away all of the tiny details - giving me enough information to want to learn more about the book, the theatrical production and the author Neil Gaiman.
    It's clear that you were impressed by level of arts involved and you described it as being an immersive experience. You've conveyed clearly that the performance was both very emotive and gave you a sense of fear - a powerful experience I'm sure.
    Once again you've delved into the emotions and meanings portrayed by the cast and any reader of your review would find it useful if they hadn't had a chance to read the book before they saw the play and also to assess if they would think this performance may be too intense for a young audience.
    Well done - another brilliant read!

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