He’s chiefly known as a novelist and comics writer, but Neil Gaiman has several strings to his bow. In recent years he’s overseen some major adaptations of his work into other media, such as audio drama (The Sandman, Neverwhere, Good Omens, Stardust) and TV (American Gods, Good Omens and The Sandman again).
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first time his work, in this case an acclaimed 2013 novel, has spawned a stage version, initially as a 2019 National Theatre production and now a pandemic-delayed touring incarnation which is debuting at The Lowry in Salford over the festive season.
It’s the tale of an unnamed 12-year-old Boy (Keir Ogilvy) who’s living in the countryside with his family as he struggles with some major upheavals in his home life. Potential salvation comes in the form of a new friendship with young neighbour Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hakasa) but, on the other hand, there’s something very not right about his family’s new lodger Ursula (Charlie Brooks). Little in this scenario is what it seems, though, not least Lettie and her family.
Directed, like the original National Theatre version, by Katy Rudd, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a pretty remarkable show. It’s expertly put together, boasting an impressive, powerful sound design, and an ensemble that conveys key moments through movement and occasionally even puppetry. When this all comes together, it’s genuinely affecting stuff.
What’s perhaps most applaudable, though, is that the sense of bold spectacle is anchored in character, telling a oddly relatable human story. When extraordinary things happen on stage, they mean something and the characters truly feel them. The adaptation has been deftly structured by playwright Joel Horwood, too, with eye (and ear) popping fantasy sequences marbled in among more grounded moments of domestic drama.
The cast are mostly admirable, too, particularly the engaging, charming leads, Hakasa and Ogilvy. As Dad, Trevor Fox lends a bit of world-weary soul to proceedings and the elder Hempstocks, Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacods) and her mother (Finty Williams), are terrific value, adding a beguiling blend of twinkle, drama and wisdom. If there’s a weak link it’s probably the villainous Ursula, who somehow never quite feels substantial enough, right up to and including the end of her story. Maybe it’s not much of a multi-layered character in the first place, but Brooks’ performance could do with more in terms of dynamic range.
There’s real substance here and some weighty themes are explored, but they’re extrapolated into scenes of wondrous, imaginative entertainment. It’s undoubtedly no panto – it constantly hovers around some seriously dark places and occasionally it’s properly tense – but there’s a a genuine warmth at the heart of the story, not to mention lashings of well-judged humour. Perhaps not for tiny ones, then, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a splendid slice of theatrical adventure, and when it’s firing on all cylinders it conjures up something very like magic.
Main image credit to Brinkhoff-Moegenburg, used with permission from The Lowry
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at The Lowry, Salford until January 8, 2023 and touring thereafter. Please click here for show times and ticket prices.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with director Katy Rudd, click here.