By Dan Bavister
Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s short, poetic 2013 novel by Joel Horwood, the National Theatre’s production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane took up residence in the West End this autumn, hosted by the Noël Coward Theatre.
The beauty of Katy Rudd’s production lies in its simplicity. The play begins in utter dark, then a beam of white light shines down onto a gathered crowd of dour mourners, dressed all in black. A man is to be buried – the unnamed male protagonist’s father. Once the man’s father is buried, the man returns to visit the site of his first love, stirring long-forgotten memories, which start to flood back to consume his consciousness. As the memories start writhing up out of his past to haunt him, the man is transported to his childhood home and a family on the edge of fracturing following their mother’s death – Trevor Fox, the actor playing the man, then takes up the role of the father to the boy at the heart of this story. The play’s subtle but beautiful meditation on the nature of time and memory is embodied in that instant; the child is the father of the man.
The story is simple: but the themes explored have deep roots. The man’s younger self (played expertly in this performance by Daniel Cornish) squabbles comically with his brattish sister (Laurie Ogden, also excellent) in the bedroom they are forced to share because their reduced circumstances demand a lodger, who promptly commits suicide in the family car. This introduces the now-traumatised boy to a witch-like family of West Country farming women, including a young girl called Lettie Hempstock (played by Millie Hikasa), whom he joins on adventures. However, the real villain in this story lies within the boy’s own family structure, a corruptive figure of nightmares who turns home comforts into embodiments of evil, and a boy’s upbringing in a countryside idyll into anything besides a sentimental tale of youth.
The transition from a brightly lit family kitchen to an unearthly forest is sublime. A black-clad ensemble of actor-dancers moves rhythmically, whirling away set pieces with the motion of rushing water. The monsters and apparitions provide a haunting nightmare journey, with the ragged, half-formed creatures rearing onto the stage, terrifying yet dazzling visions from our subconscious. The audience is mesmerised. For me, this production represents all that contemporary live theatre aspires to be. It is unassuming, poignant and starkly affecting. It is a carefully crafted jewel of a production, rich with texture and warmth – a whirling maelstrom of memory, resplendent with emotional nuance.
Charlie Brooks provides a startlingly realistic portrayal of Ursula Monkton, the attractive but cruel stepmother figure who terrorises the boy while seducing his father. Her central unsettling presence is supported by various tributary demons, played by the actor-dancers, who pulse and flourish across the stage throughout, the darkness they command looming over the boy’s fragile and loosening grasp of childhood innocence. At one point, a pool of spotlight serves as the only safe place for our boy as an enclosing vortex of demons encircles him, only Lettie Hempstock’s loving embrace able to liberate him from the dark forces at play beyond his powers of control.
And while the monsters in this story can be conquered, the broader tragedy – of loss of innocence with the passing of time – is unconquerable. Indeed, central to the emotional deliverance of the play is the sense of the inevitability of change. The troubled boy processing his mother’s unexpected passing becomes the world-weary man attending his father’s funeral. The love between girl and boy passes on, with a shift in the tide of the man’s life, as he inextricably leaves childhood behind. But while the man does inevitably return to the colder, less complex, adult world of eulogies and the office, a small, reminiscent remnant of the world of dreams – and nightmares – of his childhood stays with him. And with us.
Images: Holly Nicholls via National Theatre Productions.