This is a review of both Neil Gaiman’s novel, but also of the theatrical production that recently began at the National Theatre.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, published in 2013, is said to be the most autobiographical of Gaiman’s work. The plot starts in the present day as an unnamed man returns to the remote countryside where he grew up. He’s there for his father’s funeral.
He’s drawn away to a nearby farm, where long buried childhood memories begin to surface. Could everything he thinks happened truly have done so? We’re then drawn back into his childhood, when as a seven-year-old, some very strange things happened.
When their family’s lodger is found dead in their father’s stolen Mini down a nearby farm lane, the lodger having absconded with money, things start to unravel. The boy meets Lettie Hempstock who lives on a nearby farm with Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. Their farm is so old, it was in the Domesday Book. It’s not entirely clear that current residents haven’t been around that long either…
Via a series of unfortunate circumstances, our protagonist conjours up Ursula Monkton – a personification of a creature that had travelled back with him from a magical realm. She instantly upsets the entire apple cart of their lives, and she needs to be sent back to where she came from, rather than locking him in his room while she seduces his father.
The book is spellbinding, and the characterisations all too believable. There’s a real sense of place, while the terrors are all too real. You can completely see how the picture of a bookish young child – voraciously reading everything he can lay his hands on – is based on a young Gaiman.
I’ve owned the book since it was published, and kicked myself that I’d somehow not previously read it.
Translating it to the stage is a fascinating idea. The imagery that the novel conveys would seem to require high-end VFX. So what the National’s production uses is a series of puppeteers who animate the monsters throughout the magical world of the Hempstocks’s farm and beyond. Some clever stagecraft and practical magic effects confound the audience and play with us in a very casual manner.
The cast is fantastic, with Samuel Blenkin playing the lead, and Marli Siu playing Lettie. There’s a vivacity to their performances that delights.
For the stage production, the boy (he’s never named) is twelve rather than seven, which is a practical help, and affords his character some good jokes. The family’s mother has also been removed from the equation, but this just simplifies the story. For the rest, it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation.
It’s also a very moving piece; I’m sure many of us left thinking of thing from our own childhoods that we’d left behind, both good a nd bad.
A fantastic night out.
The production is close to completely sold out for the rest of its run which finishes on 25 January. But I bought my tickets via the National’s “Friday Rush” scheme, where you go to their website at 1pm and basically get randomly allocated a position in a digital queue to buy limited tickets for the following week. Worth doing if you want to see this!