The Ocean at the End of the Lane masterfully harnesses the magic of theatre to engulf an audience in waves of universally relatable energy and emotion.
Based on a bestselling book by Neil Gaiman, this bewitching National Theatre production makes believing in the unbelievable unquestionably acceptable. The possibility of popping out to a parallel universe is as real as it is imagined thanks to swift, slick staging and an exceptional ensemble cast.
The story opens in the here and now, with umbrella-wielding mourners flocking together in a funeral formation before fanning out across the stage. Soon, just one middle-aged man is left. He stands motionless. He is silent and lost in thought until a mysterious old woman appears. Her presence reminds him of a childhood forgotten. Snippets of his twelfth birthday come flooding back and his whirring mind whisks him off down memory lane.
It is 1983 and the man is that twelve-year-old boy again. A gentle, book-loving youngster whose mum has died, leaving his cash-strapped dad to do his best bringing up two children. The boy meets an irrepressible, otherworldly girl who reveals what lurks beneath the ripples on the surface of the water in a tiny duck pond. She holds his hand and brings an ocean of potentiality to him. The boy embraces the unknown, faces demons, dives deep inside himself and realises the enduring importance of her question: “what makes you ‘you’?”.
So much more than a play, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a pacey theatrical extravaganza. It has a dark undercurrent, but it wows with wondrous razzmatazz and entertains with humour and a lot of heart. The set, which is basically a tree-lined lane, playfully morphs into numerous locations thanks to floating furniture, flown-in scenery and atmospheric lighting. Puppetry brings shapeshifting, stage-swallowing monsters – from an enormous, faceless flea to peckish pterodactyl-like birds – to life. Neon-lit doors swing open and closed, facilitating the freakish ability of an unwanted presence to be in more than one place at a time. Music, movement and meaningful sentiments coalesce in sublimely powerful ways.
Seemingly inspired by the perpetual push and pull of an ocean, director Katy Rudd and movement director Steven Hoggett use constant motion to propel intriguing characters through events and plunge them into cascades of change. This feels incredibly fitting as themes of fear, bravery, endurance, friendship, family and growing up wash over us. Slow, graceful, under-the-water-style fluidity contrasts swimmingly with confrontational stamping and earthy rolling, striding, turning and swaying. Children scamper, fidget and gambol as they explore their surroundings and plead with parental figures for more freedom. Adults steadfastly strive for an equilibrium as they burn toast, serve hearty meals and maintain enough momentum to keep their households afloat.
The characters are complex and sometimes seem loosely sketched, yet we somehow get to know them intimately. Boy (Keir Ogilvy), Sis (Laurie Ogden) and Dad (Trevor Fox) are never named. Perhaps this is so that we can recognise aspects of ourselves in them or liken them to people we know. The remarkable girl is Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa). Her mother is Ginnie Hempstock (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and her grandmother is Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams). Together, they are an impressive trio of strong, wise women who run Hempstock Farm. They may or may not be witches, but they are certainly extraordinary individuals.
Villain Ursula Monkton (Charlie Brooks) is the ultimate interloper. Introduced to Boy and Sis, by Dad, as a new lodger, she pretends to be sweetness personified, but is really a supernatural psychopath intent on forcing her way into the family. Only Boy knows the truth and the cat-and-mouse game that ensues is not for the faint-hearted!
At one point, when Boy wonders if he and Lettie ought to find a grown-up to help them, Lettie declares that “there have been no grown-ups in all of forever”. The hypnotic ebb and flow of movement throughout the production seems to reflect this understanding – essentially everyone is just trying their best to keep going. Sometimes, trying to make a splash. Other times, trying not to drown. At all times, always moving. The rhythm of the tides keeps a swimmer active even while they are treading water. Just as the rhythm of life keeps a “grown-up” going through the motions. Meeting Lettie ultimately shows Boy two things. Firstly, the best things in life are dreamed into existence, so there is always room for imagination and ambition. Secondly, it is up to us to fight to live our lives, not just drift through them.
Watching The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an amazing experience. There are audible gasps and laughs in the auditorium. Words like gripping, mesmerising, fantastic and escapism are bandied around during the interval, but just don’t seem quite enough. The characters tell us that you can never really know how anyone else really feels, no matter what they say. Well, I think I have just experienced a very clever blurring of imagination and reality. Visited a no man’s land between childhood and adulthood. Witnessed the fragility of memory. Given a standing ovation for the power of theatre. However, I’m not sure I know how I really feel about summing up this production in an articulate manner. I might need to think about it some more or watch it again.
Boy is admirably accepting of the situations he finds himself in. Nonetheless, he does ask questions. What just happened? Will anything be like it was before? As with most things in life, the only way to find out for sure is to experience this for yourself. Are you ready for an adventure?
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes, including one interval.
Contains high-intensity lighting, strobe lighting, haze and smoke, pyrotechnics, loud sound and blackouts. Includes references to, or staging of, death/suicide, domestic violence (parental abuse), loss and grief.
Age guidance: 12+
*Production photography by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and Pamela Raith.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 1 July 2023.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.