Play reviewed by Cliff Homewood
I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since Sandman and read Ocean at the End of the Lane on release. I wasn’t impressed, it copied Coraline. I now know Neil Gaiman had a stepmother, and can see how real life influences seep in. Ocean at the End of the Lane was written to explain his childhood to his wife, therefore his most autobiographical work. But don’t worry, it’s fantasy.
It’s amongst the best plays I have seen, the similarity to Coraline one of its strengths, that’s one of his best. Amazing set design. Steeped in darkness, you can’t see the back of the stage, they control what you see. The contrast of light and dark used effectively, a door lit in the black is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Props are minimal but effective. What more do you need than a door to get from one place to the other? Often when seeing a play you make allowances for staging, in this it’s artistic and works. A kitchen is a kitchen table and a cooker. They recreate with the iconic parts of each room.
The first act ending would be the finale of another show. The monster is effective, using lighting to emphasise parts, like good horror films do. The fact you can see the shapeless whole somehow adds to its mystery.
Storywise it’s intense in places and deals with dealing with death and coping. Gaiman’s story portrays the deep emotions of surviving a wife and mother, leaving everyone damaged. The friendly witch neighbours are all women, would make a great film, not many stories feature as few men. After the witch family setup the play doesn’t let go, you are enthralled until the end. It is in places emotional and horrific. There is a type of Gaiman story that is darkly poetic, like fairytales in their original macabre form. Coraline an example, this is another. This is where Gaiman excels and this production conjures it well. Black clad extras dance the stage evoking various elements like thickets and it’s so evocative, because magic is mysterious, the lack of coherence of knowing exactly what you are seeing embellishes it. There’s also a couple of magic tricks used in telling the story which ramps up the eerie otherworldliness. Totally absorbing you in its world. As do the adults playing children, all the cast is excellent.
Dark, mysterious, the play of childhood evoked with magical underpinnings and the harsh reality of life in the background. Go see if you possibly can. You won’t see better.
The final word should go to Neil Gaiman on seeing it, “I was embarrassed to realise that there were tears running down my face. That was the moment I knew the play was going to work. Ten days later, on Press Night, I was holding my wife’s hand as she watched, and she was crying, while on the other side there was a member of the press, making notes for their review. From where I was sitting I could see tears landing on the notepad. That’s when I knew this was something very special indeed.”
Touring nationally and at the Noel Coward Theatre London 11 October – 25 November 2023