Neil Gaiman’s heart-wrenching book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has been adapted into a devastatingly emotional and beautiful play of the same name.

The National Theatre’s production was shown at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London and has just finished its run; but it will go on tour in winter later this year.

Synopsis

Returning to his domestic town for his father’s funeral, a man revisits a pond where he used to play as a child with his neighbour, Lettie Hempstock. Except it wasn’t a pond, it was an ocean. And he recounts and remembers what happened, or maybe what didn’t happen, as he and Lettie encountered a magical world.

BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!

The Book

I attended an event featuring Neil Gaiman and illustrator Elise Hurst a few years back when the illustrated version of the book was being promoted – you can read more approximately that here.

Memory

Gaiman read a couple of chapters so I was vaguely aware of the general storyline, concept, and mood of the book. What started as a short story written for his wife soon turned into a book approximately the past, remembering the past, or trying to remember the past.

I recall at the event that Gaiman said this book was not really autobiographical, but the main character represented what Gaiman was like as a child. Some aspects were representative of Gaiman’s childhood too, such as the house he grew up in.

The book opens with an adult reminiscing about his childhood and then slips into the past quite seamlessly. Interestingly, the novel recounts the past in a matter of a few days. I felt the scenes playing out happening one after the other compelling reading.

The child never appears to sleep and just rolls from one troubling event to the next troubling event. In retrospect, this would be normal, as this is the adult in the present recounting the past so it would be odd for the tale to recount, say, sleeping.

Ursula

I first experienced the character Ursula during Gaiman’s reading and I was initially confused. On reading the book myself and having read the events that led up to her inclusion in the story, I realised she was very much like the Other Mother from Gaiman’s Coraline.

Both females want to control the world or another character, both females are feared by the protagonist, and both protagonists wish to run absent from the trapped world that these females create.

It was interesting reading about Urusla – I did not like her one bit. I recall complaining about Ursula’s manipulative, mean, and conniving behaviour to the hubby – to which he responded in jest – it’s as whether she’s an unlikeable villain.

In retrospect, the character Ursula might have been a bit too on the nose for me, having personally experienced the true ugly face of someone that no one else can see. Ursula, in essence, encapsulates covert bullying and I found some passages difficult to digest.

The Hempstocks

As the story progresses, Ursula is not the main issue – there are other creatures that even Ursula fears. As I continued reading, though I found the Ursula character difficult to read, I was still compelled to continue as the plot introduced other problems and I wished to know how they would be solved.

I loved the Hempstocks. Three generations of women working together. The hubby said the Hempstock women reminded him of the Mother, the Maiden, and the Crone – which was pretty apt.

I loved the cut and stitch and whenever Granny Hempstock knew what was happening even though she wasn’t there – the omniscient power to just know everything.

I even loved the mother being so forgiving of the protagonist even after what happened to Lettie in the end.

I think the reason why I loved the Hempstocks so much was, not just because they were kick-ass powerful women, but because they were so warm and welcoming to the protagonist when he needed guidance and help the most.

They saw a vulnerable and defenceless kid, and in their good-natured hearts, knew they had to protect him instead of wounding him. That was what I loved. The Hempstock farm to me felt like a warm mug of hot chocolate on a rainy winter’s night.

I’ve read articles and posts where Gaiman notes he didn’t expect readers to narrate so much to this book, as parts of it is indeed fantastical and magical. But to me, it’s the characters and the relationships – both good and poor – that are universally relatable.

The ending

I really don’t know why Lettie had to, essentially, die. The hubby said she’s just sleeping and resting – but resting for 40 years is a very long time. I was distraught by the ending and so upset it ended the way it did.

But I suppose I don’t know how it could’ve ended any other way. I really didn’t want Lettie to die, I wanted Lettie and the protagonist to grow old together and remain friends.

The Play

Prior to watching the play, the hubby read some reviews, which basically said that the play will wreck you! And, man, was I wrecked! I had even tried to emotionally prepare myself for the play, but it clearly didn’t work.

Audio and visual effects

Synth music was effectively played, partially to set the past in the 1980’s and to displace the past from the present, but also to capture the psychedelic unnatural aspect of the magical creatures.

There were good visual effects and interesting use of props on stage. The crew were dressed in black and would move matters on stage. Almost like breaking the fourth wall a little, it was quite effective and funnily executed, like in a breakfast scene where toast was grabbed by the protagonist and the crew stopped mid motion.

The use of doors and door frames was really well done. Ursula walking in and out of doors and walking off and on stage in seconds was quite trippy! It physically emphasises her manipulative nature and shows how powerful she can be: Ursula appears to walk out one door off stage to the correct and then immediately opens and enters a door in the centre of the stage – that was super trippy! I heard audible gasps from the audience too.

I feel the horror aspect was amped up in the play. In one bathroom scene there was red lighting and a hand emerging from the bath tub. That was not in the book and was a little creepy for me.

The portrayal of the rag monsters was effective and a little disturbing. When reading the book I found it tough to assume what these other-worldly creatures would look like, and having seen the play, I still can’t fairly describe it in words – which means the production and crew did a good job!

And then there’s the ocean. The ocean at the end of the lane was magical! The use of puppets portraying the protagonist and Lettie, illuminating lights, and euphoric music made it an absolutely amazing and magical scene. I wish I could enter and swim in that ocean!

Then at the end – it was such a powerful scene – this was when I was tearing up. It was so intense and fully charged with emotion: a grandmother’s love for her granddaughter – the ocean coming up and enveloping Lettie. Ah, it was beautiful.

Performance

All the actors and crew were really impressive! Of course the protagonist and Lettie both did a superb job.

The sister was hilarious, she was super annoying in the book and was still super annoying in the play, but watching the actor you can kind of laugh off the annoyance.

There was no mother in the play, presumably to condense the number of actors on stage and to simplify the storyline. I felt having the mother in the book made the father’s affair worse, whilst in the play the father’s affair possibly appears to be a reprieve from his loneliness.

Of course I despised Ursula, but I have to admit: the actor did a really good and creepy job! Walking off and on stage/ entering and exiting doors super quickly, being harnessed up to fly menacingly, and having hunger birds peck and eat you appears like hard work. Kudos to the actor!

I felt Ginny Hempstock was a little one dimensional. Though maybe they had to reduce some things to keep in the run time.

Old Mrs Hempstock is such a not good ass! Telling the starvation birds to go away and bringing the ocean to Lettie – such a powerful woman.

Intergenerational trauma

This was not too prevalent in the book, from my reminiscence, but it was interestingly brought to the forefront in the play. I didn’t realise when reading the book that suicide was the catalyst to the flea/ Ursula essentially waking up, as it happened on the edge of reality.

The play definitely packed an emotional punch, and I guess I should have known from the very first scene when the actor playing the present day adult protagonist transitions to the father in the past. That was really well done.

The generational trauma was not as heavy in the book. I do recall reading the scene when the protagonist confronts his father on the fairy green – the play is rawer. The protagonist asks his father, thinking he’s an phantasm, if he feels big for making him cry. Ouch.

And then the father steps foot on the fairy green and you know he’s really the father and not an phantasm – the little girl next to me audibly gasped at this point. That hit my heart too.

The father complains about being physically abused by his own father. And the protagonist here wonders if emotional abuse from his father is any better. It’s raw moments like this where I feel so many people can relate and understand.

Conclusion

A powerful and devastatingly beautiful play based on an emotionally charged book. I would definitely go and watch the play again. Would I read the book again?

Perhaps in several years. The Ursula character really packed a punch for me – an emotional punch in the intestine. I’m glad I read it and I’m not surprised I’m the not the only one who can relate to this story.

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