There have been several huge Neil Gaiman adaptations in recent years. The two most notable have been television series: Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s controversial adaptation of American Gods (2017), and Gaiman’s own adaptation of Good Omens (2019) – the novel he wrote with Terry Pratchett.
Also in 2019, Joel Horwood ambitiously brought Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of Lane to life onstage at the National Theatre. The play’s success led to a West End transfer and now a national tour, with its regional premiere held at The Lowry.
Whilst Ocean is obviously a fantasy novel, it has many relatable themes, such as family and finding oneself, which the National Theatre has brought to the forefront. In some ways, the fantastical Ocean is similar to the real-world A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, one of the National Theatre’s most acclaimed productions, which premiered a decade ago. The National Theatre has applied a similar formula to Ocean. Whilst the former masterfully used lighting design to help establish the autistic main character’s way of seeing and being, the latter uses it, more conventionally but just as captivatingly, to create a world of magic.
Ocean follows a young boy, simply called Boy (Keir Ogilvy), still reeling from his mother’s death. He lives with his struggling but supportive father, Dad (Trevor Fox), and his sassy sister, Sis (Laurie Ogden). He soon befriends the strange but smart Lettie (played by Millie Hikasa, who steals every scene she’s in).
Lette lives with her strong-willed mother, Ginnie, and her wise, passionate grandmother, “Old Mrs Kimpton”. The former is played by Kemi-Bo Jacobs whilst the latter is played by Finty Williams (Gosford Park, Angelina Ballerina). Jacobs is convincing and sympathetic as a hardened mother whilst Williams is every bit as fabulous as one would expect the daughter of Dame Judi Dench to be.
The play’s villain, Ursula/Skarthatch, is played to perfection by Charlie Brooks, who is best-known for playing Janine Butcher in EastEnders (one of the greatest soap villains of all time, with a fitting surname).
It’s interesting that only the magical characters have names; the mortals are all nameless, rendering them ordinary and unexceptional; they could be any one of us.
The play’s ensemble, though nameless and often faceless, are the beating heart of the play. Their portrayals of Skarthatch in flee form (yes, really) and the hunger birds were striking; they worked together in tandem to bring the beasts to life.
The play’s plot, though nothing ground-breaking, is darkly intriguing. The play masterfully and metaphorically uses magic as a stand-in and aid for various socio-political issues. Dad is anchored down with unspoken anguish, weighed down by grief but desperate to be a better father to his son than his own father was to him.
After Boy rants at Ursula and flips over the table she has decorated with an enticing feast, Dad twice dunks him into a filled bath, briefly drowning him. Boy wants to believe that Ursula enchanted him but she promises she didn’t, and she has no reason to lie. It’s a careful, considered examination of generational trauma and an in interesting interrogation of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. Humans can be just as cruel as supernatural beings, and supernatural beings are not necessarily evil. Lettia, who fought to keep Skarthatch in the supernatural realm, insists that she is scared, not evil.
The real magic, however, is seen in the mesmerising production value. The dark, dull and dreary “real” world is wonderfully contrasted with the enchanting but terrifying magical realm – and the magic that inevitably escapes that realm and invades the world of mortals. As a huge musical theatre fan, when I watch plays, I often find myself waiting for characters to burst into song and dance, but Ocean trades music numbers for magic numbers – and they really are some of the most magical scenes I’ve ever seen in theatre.
My favourite scene has to be the one in which Ursula reveals that she is, in fact, Skarthatch. She exits the dining room with Sis, leaving Boy behind, and walks offstage, before suddenly re-entering the door onstage. The audience gasped.
Obviously, the woman who walked offstage with Sis was a member of the ensemble, dressed as Ursula, and Brooks somehow hid behind the door, but the execution was incredible; it really did feel supernatural. This happened a couple more times, in slightly different ways, and the audience never tired of the trick. The ensemble brought more and more doors onstage, Skarthatch magically replicating the room’s single door. Sound and lighting were employed to create a terrifying tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. It’s a scene that will stick with me forever. That is how you do theatre.
Whilst the play’s lore can be a little unclear (with new concepts suddenly introduced, many of them not properly established or interrogated), the simplicity is part of the appeal. Death and trauma can easily activate the imagination of an impressionable child, who might prefer to get lost in a nightmare than deal with the horrors of real life. Ostensibly, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is fantastical, but, at its core, it’s a story about family – and whilst few of us have had the (dis)pleasure of encountering magic, we can all recognise and appreciate the complexity and dysfunctionality of family.