Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been adapted for the stage by writer Joel Horwood and director Katy Rudd and toured the UK from December 2022 – October 2023. I was lucky enough to see one of the last performances.
Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is the old-fashioned kind, a gorgeous example of Victorian opulence with its ornate red and gold interior. The assembled audience were an unexpectedly mixed bunch for what is essentially a children’s story, with children as the main protagonists. The youngest member of the audience looked about eight years old and the oldest easily 80, and everything in between, including some obvious American Gods fans.
But it really isn’t a children’s story, although children can certainly get a great deal out of it with the escape of the lonely Boy (who isn’t named) into a world of magical fantasy. Adults can also find powerful messages about trauma, family tragedy, friendship, a child’s growing sense of identity and the overwhelming power of the universe.
A man in middle age returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral and from here the story of what happened to him as a boy unfolds, with a tragic but positive ending – in the ocean at the end of the lane. He escaped his family turmoil to meet Lettie, a wonderful girl/woman/supernatural figure who lives on a farm with a duckpond. Lettie is adamant it is an ocean. As evil entities try to enter the ‘real’ world, Lettie and the Boy endure a number of trials of physical and mental strength.
Scope and power
The scope of this piece is enormous and many scenes gave us plenty to think about. The play is described by Anne Reimers as being “as deep as the Mariana Trench in the Pacific”. There is a reminder that we often shut off our memories and forget the magical times of childhood. The intrusion into the family of the ‘wicked stepmother’ figure says something about the pains of accepting a stranger in place of a mother. And at the end, the Boy must accept the inevitability of death – or rather, the fact that our bodies’ atoms return to the universe.
It was easy to forget our Victorian surroundings – the production was a visual onslaught of light and sound (very loud but very good). It was impossible not to be absorbed, body and mind, into the universe of the play. The monsters – puppets deftly moved about the stage – were terrifying and malevolent, the humans facing them small and seemingly powerless. The contrast between the rather dreary sets of the family homes and the astounding colours of the magical world said something about the power of our imaginations to go beyond the everyday.
It was a true theatrical experience, which stayed with me until I got back to my car, and even then, the lights of the play were all around me until I got home.
And the book is a good read too.