National Theatre’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane has returned to London and is currently playing at the Noël Coward Theatre.
The play is an adaptation of the novel written by best-selling author Neil Gaiman, also famous for his other works including Coraline and Stardust.
It tells the story of a man who returns to his childhood home in Sussex, where he remembers the events of his 12th birthday, when he and his friend Lettie were sent on a dark and fantastical adventure, and Lettie told him about the duck pond which she claimed was an ocean.
During the story they encounter ancient forces within this other reality, hellbent on breaking through to their world and changing the balance of everything.
The set really brought the story to life, giving it that classic “Neil Gaiman” feel, with the use of a dark countryside landscape and withered trees.
The set uses a mixture of props, puppets and lighting to set the scene, from the cosy farmhouse where Lettie Hempstock and her family live, to the mysterious worlds that lie beyond the borders of the farm.
The play tells the story of the events that transpired in the past, as we meet a family torn apart by the loss of their mother and wife: a boy obsessed with fairy tales in the books he reads, a sister looking for companionship, and a father grappling to keep everything together.
The Boy (Daniel Cornish) stumbles on the peculiar Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa), who tells him about the ocean that exists at the bottom of the lane, and introduces him to the Hempstock family who are just as strange as she is.
The Boy meets Ginnie Hempstock (Risha Silvera) and Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams), who give a sense of being a lot older then they actually appear, with their talk of magic and times gone by.
But when Lettie leads the Boy out of the “boundaries” of the safe haven of Hempstock Farm and into a dark world, they encounter what the Hempstocks call “a Flea” which is described as a dark force wishing to break through to this world.
The introduction of the Flea (Charlie Brooks) was simply gripping and terrifying. The use of puppetry and lighting gave the sense of a dark looming force that instantly made me think of antagonists like the Beldam from Coraline.
But despite warnings that Lettie makes to the Boy about the Flea and its powers, he still falls prey, ultimately opening a wormhole for the Flea to cross through into this reality.
The Flea, who has a desire to “make others happy” by giving them the things they desire, worms her way into the family home as the new lodger, after the former one was pronounced dead at the start of the play.
The Flea, now known as Ursula, doesn’t take long to show her true self, as she sets her sights on overpowering the Boy, who is the only family member seemingly immune to her dark charms.
Charlie Brooks utterly personified the role of the Flea, giving the character a dark and divisive edge as only she can.
The scene begins to grow more darker, with almost a horror film type of feeling, as the lights flash to reveal the sinister Flea appearing in different places, while the desperate boy tries to break free from her clutches.
However, despite the darker moments that the play has – dealing with death, family disputes and loss, that are both fantastical and real – the play also has its lighter moments.
The play is occasionally punctuated with humour, like the Dad’s repeated run-in with burnt toast that the children eat with disgust, to the moments where the Boy witnesses Ursula seducing his father.
The dialogue throughout the play used a mix of humour, wit and thought-provoking philosophy, which really kept me hanging on to every word.
The play took many twists and turns, with further antagonists being revealed, as the Hempstock family fight to save him from the grips of the mysterious unknown world only they seem to know about.
The core of the play seems to be to question what it means to exist, what our identities are made of and what it means simply to be.
We are led to question what our desires actually mean and what they would cost. It challenges our perceptions of life and death and what it means to be human.
The story touched upon many themes – desire, want, greed, friendship, love, identity and grief – meaning it felt very relatable, despite its talk of magic and mystery.
I could fully relate to the characters and their internal struggles, each one seeming to have so many mysteries that left me guessing what their true, full stories were.
I left the play with a tear in my eye, having experienced so many emotions in just a short space of time. I’ve never experienced a play that made me think so much about the universe and its mysteries.
It was gripping, magical, mysterious, thought-provoking and a beautiful recreation of the book, which brought the world to life.
All in all, it felt like a true adult fairy-tale story, that made me realise that magic exists in the minds of everyday people who dream things into existence.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane will be playing at the Noël Coward Theatre until November 25, 2023.