Review: The Ocean at
the End of the Lane

The National Theatre's adaption of Neil Gaiman's dark fantasy makes a stunning Northern debut

Hero image

The power of theatre to enthral, amuse, move and occasionally terrify is beautifully and brilliantly realised in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which made its debut outside of London this month. Based on the award-winning book by Neil Gaiman, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood and directed by Katy Rudd, this National Theatre production has uprooted from a critically acclaimed run at the Duke of York’s Theatre and taken to the road, launching its 38-week tour at Salford’s Lowry Theatre.

This two-hour play opens grimly rooted in reality. A man returns to his childhood home following the death of his father. He’s drawn to the edge of a pond at a nearby farm, which he remembers playing beside, and there meets a scatty old woman, the grandmother of a girl he once knew. The encounter triggers a memory and he is transported back to the early eighties as the man recalls his 12-year-old self. We meet this unnamed boy, the protagonist of the play, exquisitely played with open hearted energy and passion by Keir Ogilvy, at a similarly grim time. His mother has been dead a year, his father is taking on extra work to make ends meet, and their lodger has just killed himself in the family car at the edge of that same pond.

That’s a lot of death for a family show that’s running over Christmas! I hear you cry. And yes, this is from the imagination of Neil Gaiman, and if you’ve ever read or seen any of his work (Coraline, American Gods, or the recent Netflix adaptation of The Sandman, for example), you’ll know darkness and death come as part of the package. But don’t worry, things soon get magical too.

The magic begins subtly. Following the death of the lodger, the boy meets Lettie, a slightly otherworldly, manic young girl who seems to be about his age. She, her mother and her grandmother offer him fresh milk and the best porridge he’s ever had at their farm. The boy and Lettie find a dead fish in the pond, and within it, a fifty pence piece. Bit odd. Later that night, the boy coughs up another coin of his own. Something is trying to cross over from another realm, Lettie tells him, and it thinks it can buy its way into our world. She and the boy set off to stop the creature in its tracks, diving into the pond, which Lettie calls an ocean, and which is actually a portal between realities. And so begins the adventure in which the magic really ramps up.

To give much more away about what unfolds plot wise would be to spoil the surprises that await in this fantastic and fantastical play, but before long there are battles with terrifying creatures from another dimension, a cat and mouse chase with an evil entity (including some really clever proper stage magic) and some massive emotional blows delivered as the boy is drawn into a fight not just for his own survival, but for that of the entire world.

The fact that this play has got to move from stage to stage on a massive tour means that, set wise, things are kept relatively simple. But the clever use of props, lighting and most of all puppetry, mean one soon becomes immersed in this play and its inter-dimensional worlds. The puppets range from huge terrifying behemoths that sprawl across the stage to a delicate, tear inducing scene involving marionette versions of the boy and Lettie swimming through the magical ocean together.

The performances are all spot on. Millie Hikasa’s brave, bold portrayal of Lettie is the perfect match for Ogilvy’s terrified, damaged boy. You really buy into their developing friendship. And Trevor Fox, who plays both the boy grown up and his dad, is also excellent. Special mention too for Laurie Ogden who, as the brattish younger sister to the boy, has some fine comedic moments, and Finty Williams as Lettie’s grandmother, who is wise, comforting and strange. Was it me, or was she challenging Liz Truss when she kept offering people cheese with a sinister grin?

Charlie Brooks (best known as Janine Butcher from Eastenders) has great fun as the malevolent Ursula, a creature brought to our reality who invades the boy’s home and family. She’s like a wicked stepmother on steroids. But be warned, this is no pantomime.

There’s a recommended age of 12 plus on this play, and it’s for good reason. There’s a smattering of gore for a start: a scene in which the boy pulls something from a wound on his hand had me turning away in horror and someone is literally torn to shreds at one point. There are also a few jump scares and some big adult themes dealt with. The horror never takes away from the fantasy and the magic, but dark and light go hand in hand here.

Ultimately though, this is a play steeped in childhood wonder, memory and storytelling. Childhood tales such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, and more recent classics such as The Dark Crystal are woven into the play’s DNA. And while this may not be a production suitable for younger children, with its dark and wonderous magic, this story may well awaken the child within you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the Lowry, Salford until 8 January and then on tour including The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (4-8 April), Liverpool Empire (2-6 May) and Sheffield Lyceum Theatre (9-20 May). Visit for more information.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.