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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

  • Theatre, Children's
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2021
Photo by Manuel HarlanJames Bamford (the Boy) and Nia Towey (Lettie Hempstock)

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

The National Theatre’s haunting Neil Gaiman adaptation is even better in the West End

This review is from November 2021. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ returns to the West End in October 2023 in a touring version with an all-new cast that includes Finty Williams as Old Mrs Hempstock.

Did the unnamed protagonist of ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ really fight terrible extradimensional monsters as a 12-year-old, accompanied by his irrepressible, otherworldly friend Lettie Hempstock? Or is the much older version of him we meet at the start and end simply using the fantasy stories he loved to process a miserable, lonely, even abusive childhood? Is the ‘snip and stitch’ performed on his memory by Lettie’s unfathomably powerful ‘grandmother’ real? Or just a metaphor for repressed memories?

You can read Joel Horwood’s superlative National Theatre adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 fantasy novel any way you like. But when I saw it during its initial run at the Dorfman back in 2019, I was so wowed by the razzle-dazzle of Katy Rudd’s production that I didn’t really consider its status as a memory play. Maybe a monstrous entity does enter the world after the suicide of the family lodger, taking on the shape of a vituperative new tenant, Ursula, who seduces and twists the protagonist’s affable widower dad. Or maybe his dad just got a new girlfriend and started treating him abusively. But the fact of the matter is that this is a story about a lonely, mistreated boy who came into conflict with his family, and then buried memories of the period for decades.

What I’m really getting at is that I found my second visit to the ‘Ocean’ much more emotional than the first. I genuinely think the show is better at the Duke of York’s: tighter, filling the space better, with designer Fly Davis’s backdrop of a tangled thorn portal more effective under a traditional proscenium arch. But I think it also rewards repeat viewing: as I say, this time its strengths as a story of childhood loneliness and the escape James Bamford’s awkward protagonist finds in fantasy worlds feels clearer – both in terms of Nia Towle’s clearly non-human Lettie and her family, but also the works of CS Lewis, which in one scene literally save the boy from Ursula.

But the flashy stuff remains jaw-dropping too, from Jherek Bischoff’s glittering retro synth score to Sam Wyer’s puppets (directed by Finn Caldwell), which run the gamut from vast, stage-swallowing monsters to the sublimely beautiful sequence in which the protagonist and Lettie finally dive into the titular ocean.

And the new actors are great too, not deviating far from the winning performances of the originating NT cast, but still nailing their roles: as Ursula, Laura Rogers has a silkier sort of menace than her predecessor Pippa Nixon, while Nicolas Tennant is particularly good as the sad-sack dad, who appears to be a one-note character before showing hidden depths, not all of them good.

The bottom line is, shows like this don’t come along very often. Maybe it’s changed, maybe I’ve changed, but second time out ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ felt bigger, stranger, sadder and more beautiful – I wish I could swim in its twilight waters for longer.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Event website:
£18-£125. Runs 2hr 30min
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