Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre

Kathy Rudd’s staging of Neil Gaiman’s children’s book brilliantly interrogates the ever-thinning separation between reality and the imagination. We follow a child’s mind as it delves into mystical pagan energies that leave everyday rural England to be invaded by the fantastical.  

The play is swept up, somewhat hysterically, by an amalgamation of gargantuan beasts and unsavoury creatures. Rudd’s use of puppetry unleashes our minds with monstrous abandon, using terror to paint impossible territories. Darkness reigns. Costume designer Samuel Wyer just about manages to pull off the most ludicrous creations by cleverly working with the stage’s spatial dimensions. Yet I find the subtler moments of Hitchcock-esque horror to be more effective: a human arm spirals out of a plughole, later surging into life when it nonchalantly morphs into the quasi-stereotypical body of an evil stepmother. Overused puppets take a back seat, replaced by haunting hints of other-worldly presences. When sensationalism scales down, impact scales up.  

Yet the play does not always negotiate the balance between loud and quiet, as the more intimate moments of domesticity are often overshadowed by an adrenaline-filled spectacle. Samuel Blenkin plays the unnamed “boy” with a mixture of integrity and irony, while Marli Siu throws a sort of ageless energy at the heroine Leti Hempstock, following the Luna Lovegoods of this world. 

Rudd positions The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the same vein as Max Porter’s Lanny. Both are dark fairy tales involving children who are imbued with a sense of ancient magic—their sideways approach to life detangles the growing pains of living in a world that’s growing up too fast. Apparently wisdom doesn’t always come with age. 

The sharp aches of adulthood pervade the stage, making some scenes too intense for a child to stomach. The play begins with a suicide, and there’s an uncomfortable scene involving child abuse. During the interval, I overheard a family conversation in which a mother explained waterboarding to her 10-year-old daughter. A bit much? I think so.

The Hempstock family are undoubtedly the play’s biggest achievement. Their remedial dose of folklore challenges the status quo, essentially becoming a modern reincarnation of Shakespeare’s Puck. Whilst the Hempstocks save the life of the boy, their beautiful matriarchy belongs to its own world. 

A few raw human interactions are scattered into the cracks of the play, as the script poignantly seeks to quantify and comprehend the chaos of growing up only to realise the fallibility and falsity of adult facades. 

These bubbles of emotion could have been blown into something more compelling, but ultimately I find the play’s sentimental landscape to be subsumed by its action, leaving some of the relationships underdeveloped and disappointingly explained away by the Hempstock’s tradition of otherness and mysticism.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is playing the National Theatre until 25 January. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.