Having enjoyed a pre-Covid run in the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium in late-2019, The Ocean At The End Of Lane has now been brought back to life at the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, where it opened this week.
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman (he of “Stardust” and “American Gods” fame), to begin to explain its plot feels almost impossible. Daringly original, and unmistakably Gaiman, the story centres around a nameless man returning to his childhood home and unearthing previously unknown secrets from the past. Travelling back to the 80s (even Wimpy gets a mention), events turn more fantastical the more he unearths, bringing him into a world full of dangers while also dealing with a troubled home life and personal tragedy.
Stunningly directed by Katy Rudd, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a powerful, haunting, captivating play that engages the brain and the heart in equal measure. Almost a fairytale for grown-ups, the piece explores the fine line between the mundane and the magical (which Gaiman is a master at), asking where memory ends and imagination begins and questioning what is real and what really makes us who we are.
The music (composed by Jherek Bischoff) and lighting (designed by Paule Constable) combine beautifully to create a haunting gothic quality that runs through the production, as does a backdrop of twisted brambles which ominously frame the stage. Sometimes it feels reminiscent of the Old Vic’s production of A Monster Calls, which left me cold, but here the fantastical elements are heightened and are far more effective.
Illusions are breath-taking and seamless, and slick choreography keeps the piece running at a great pace, also pulling off some brilliant misdirects. The production conjures up some powerful imagery, from writhing black wraiths to hands emerging from bathtubs and dressing gown sleeves, that will make you mistrust the back of your bedroom door forevermore. The ‘hunger birds’ are the stuff of nightmares, particularly in their later appearance. Although this show contains plenty of magic and escapist fantasy, this really isn’t a show for younger children. Leave them with the grandparents for the night.
Joel Horwood’s script is laced with humour that balances the dark undertones, with everyone on great form. Penny Layden (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Grace Hogg-Robinson (Sis) wring every laugh from every line with their delivery; Robinson particularly excels and is an absolute delight to watch. Laura Rogers also gives good villainess in a delicious turn as Ursula that straddles the Narnian Witch and Mae West with glee. Nia Towle as Lettie has a wonderful vibrancy to her performance which gives her scenes a really watchable energy. James Bamford as Boy also gives a skilled performance; at first the portrayal feels a little too similar to Curious Incident’s Christopher, though he is more rounded and touching in Act 2.
This is a show which will speak differently to different people, which all good theatre should do; I overheard a gentleman say at the interval, ‘I have no idea what’s going on but I’m loving it’. A woman next to me was in tears for large chunks of the second act. Throughout the 2.5 hour running time, I heard nearly every vocal reaction you can get from an audience, and the final bows were met with an immediate standing ovation and rousing cheers. It’s a show that evokes laughter, chills and tears within minutes of each other, with some wonderful breakneck changes in tone that keep you gripped and on the edge of your seat throughout.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a rich, multi-layered, complex piece that could withstand multiple viewings and continue to yield new insights. An invigorating alternative for those who want to be left thinking about a show long after it’s finished, rather than it being already forgotten by the time you’re on the train home, the show truly deserves its transfer to the West End, and provides a thrilling alternative for London theatregoers looking for something truly different.
Reviewed by Rob Bartley