“There’s nothing quite like the magic of theatre…”
An extraordinary piece of theatre.
A commonly heard, if somewhat meaningless assertion. For some, it is a clear description of the spirit and joy that can only be experienced from live performance. For others, it is a glib attempt to justify exorbitant prices with undefinable nonsense.
Words that divide opinion so strongly are best avoided when reviewing. Generally, this isn’t too difficult when you’ve a good thesaurus to hand. But then you see a production like The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And you’re surprised. And you’re screwed.
There can be no doubt that The Ocean… is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Its mere presence should light up the West End. In short, the experience is… well… how about this…
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is inexplicable and remarkable. It has an enchanting… mystical quality, glamour, and appeal. The production is an inspired accomplishment, created with exceptional skill and talent.
Words in italics provided by the Oxford English Dictionary. You will find them under the very definition of ‘magic’.
Forget your expectations
I missed The Ocean at the End of the Lane when it premiered at the National in December 2019 but I doubt I was the only NT-goer to mentally file it with the other “ostensibly-for-kids-but-really-for-parents” shows they do so well at Christmas. Taking its place with the flying of Peter Pan and the puppet-people of Pinocchio, The Ocean would undoubtedly be delightful but firmly fixed to both time and venue.
Missing it was a shame, but I never considered the possibility that we would need to make space in the very small club for 5 star shows. (We have given five to National Theatre shows since 2015.)
When the reviews lavished starts upom it, I presumed seasonally biased festive cheer. When it sold out, I put it down to well-placed words by well-heeled Mummies at the Kensington Park school gates. When the West End transfer was announced, all I could think of was the same journey taken by David Eldridge’s highly over-rated, self-indulgent, wankfest-for-the-woke, Beginning. Hardly a guarantee of quality.
My 2019 self clearly knew nothing.
The nearby otherworldliness
The play is an adaptation of a 2013 novel by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman isn’t, as I had first thought, the lead singer of the Divine Comedy, but a writer best known for his numerous comics and graphic novels. He is a creator of other worlds, their super-villains, and their heroes. He wages wars and he saves universes.
INon attendees of Comic Cons would most likely know Gaiman from previous adaptations of his work such as the fantasy films, Coraline and Stardust. And the TV series American Gods and, with the late Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.
The other world Gaiman has created here is the world seen through the eyes of a child. The universe that consists of the things around you then, your family, friends, and home. The events that take place are so extraordinary, so huge, so life and death, because, well, they are, aren’t they?
Gaiman wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane to introduce his wife to his boy-self, named only as Boy in the play. As such, the story takes inspiration from the real places, real events, and real people of his childhood. But this is not in any way an autobiography, either literally or “with elements added for dramatic purposes”.
If an autobiography consists of the events we remember, this story has been formed by the very act of remembering.
Memories well remembered
He is remembering himself when he was a Boy – a ball of anxiety deftly controlled in an often joyous, often moving performance by James Bamford – at his first meeting with the girl who became his best friend, Lettie Hempstock (an enthralling Nia Towle in her West End debut).
Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother – so old she remembers when the moon was made – have lived for thousands of years in their farm that sits on the edges of our world and the worlds outside. Together they work endlessly and thanklessly, to keep us safe from the hordes of evil creatures (known as ‘fleas’) that want to invade.
He remembers how one of these fleas broke through by making a worm hole in his heart, emerging first in worm form from his palm before mutating into an adult woman and rising from the bath plug. How her mission to take over the world started by forcing the Boy’s father and sister to love her, while cruelly locking him in his room.
As the only ones able to save the universe, the children fight monsters the size of the entire stage. They outsmart villains who multiply in front of their eyes. They use old toys as traps for killer birds. They escape from inescapable prisons. They ‘snip and stitch’ memories out of time. They swim through magical oceans. They climb unscalable mountains. And they confront adult emotions for the first time.
And you will believe every single moment of this as you see it happening for real.
Unpicking the metaphor
Of course, you can rummage for the metaphors contained within the fantastical, dramatic, strange, scary and sad events that take place over the two or three days he is recalling from his pre-teen life.
The evil monster worming herself into his life (literally) represents anyone trying to replace his lost mother. The act of reading – something he is bullied for – becomes a way to outsmart a demon. The strength and independence of three generations of women able to run a farm is equitable to that required to protect the universe.
Cleverly working through the metaphor is missing the point. It is forgetting what it was really like to be a child.
The magical magic
The staging brings the magical ideas of memory to life with endless theatrical magic that is pure joy. Imagination too great to be contained, spills from the stage and out into the audience. It is in front of us, around us and above us. It becomes part of us and us part of it.
The production team includes Jamie Harrison and John Bulleid, who have job titles to die for - respectively Magic and Illusions Director and Designer, and Associate – so there is clearly ‘real magic’ at work too. (Put aside questions of whether that is an oxymoron. Now really isn’t the time.)
These aren’t magic tricks, designed to create mystery or distract us by wondering how. There is no sense of secrets only known by those who know. It is the magic of War Horse, not the majesty of War of the Worlds. It is no insult to the mechanics of the tricks created by Messrs Harrison and Bulleid, to say that the overall impression isn’t one of ‘smoke and mirrors’. Which is exactly as it should be. We are a part of this story and there is no place for disbelief.
A clear conclusion
There is no neatly knowing conclusion here, no nodding wink to the adults to acknowledge it has all been “just a dream”. After all, aren’t our remembered feelings just as real as our remembered actions?
But I feel I must conclude with less room for doubt. I need to make it clear that, whether you see one piece of theatre in London a month, one a year, or one in your entire lifetime, there is only one piece of theatre right now that you should choose.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not just another piece of theatre.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane IS theatre.