Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Mayflower Theatre, 4 July 2023

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Mayflower Theatre, 4 July 2023

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a National Theatre production based on the best-selling novel of the same name by local author Neil Gaiman.

The show premiered in 2019 but this is its first national tour (delayed due to the Covid pandemic). The book was released in 2013 quickly winning a string of awards and earning a place on the New York Times best seller list.

Gaiman’s family owned grocery stores in Portsmouth, and Gaiman was honoured by Portsmouth City Council by naming a small lane near the location of those shops after the book.

I have been a huge Gaiman fan since running around comic shops as a teenager in the 90’s trying find the latest issues of DC Vertigo’s The Sandman.

I’ve enjoyed his short stories and novels, TV series such as Neverwhere and a guest spot on Doctor Who in addition to the feature films such as Stardust and Coraline.

But this is the first time I have seen any of his works on the small stage of live theatre.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a slight departure from his other work as it was written for his wife at the time, who wasn’t a fan of urban fantasy.

So whilst the story still evolves around ancient spirits and farmers older than time, it is framed in narrative from an un-named man as he reflects on these extraordinary experiences from his childhood on a rare trip to his former home.

In this method of storytelling a more human and autobiographical tale emerges. I was interested to see how this complex, layered story, supernatural beings and magic would translate onto the stage.

From the start it is clear there is a major plot change, looking back this is possibly to make the story simpler and cast smaller but, for me, this change also changed the motivations of the remaining characters, and also the impact their actions have on others.

However, I accept that transposing a novel (with the amount of words it takes to tell a tale and the infinite special effects available in the human mind) into a 2 hour play within a very limited physical space necessitates some compromises.

Whilst I found this slightly jarring to start it really only impacts the first part of the play and by the end of the first half I was fully dragged in.

Charlie Brooks as Ursula was wonderfully creepy in that disturbing way which can both upset the small child she is pursuing on stage but also the adults watching in the audience.

The staging supporting her character is clever and simple but so effective, you could hear people’s expressions of shock and surprise.

The score by Jherek Bischoll is otherworldly and enhances that feeling of discomfort.

Yet it’s Millie Hikasa as Lettie who really draws you in. She’s weird and adorable and would have definitely been your best friend when you were eleven too. Her physicality captures the different aspects of the youngest Hemstock perfectly.

I don’t want to talk too much about the ensemble, except to say they were incredible. Stage hands/ dancers/ puppeteers all at one and more.

They are so enchanting, always in harmony, with impeccable timing and awareness of space. You need to see them to understand and I don’t want to spoil any of their spellbinding performance by describing it more.

The second half was even more magical that the first. The staging and the ensemble again providing so much of the atmosphere with effects some of which I understood how they were achieved, some I didn’t and still don’t now.

The most beautiful puppetry I wanted to continue on and on, I wanted to be in Lettie’s Ocean. But as the story rolls towards its climax it becomes more and more emotional.

How memories and imagination and invention are all the same, how we are always eleven inside, no matter how old we look.

Most importantly It’s about safety and family and somewhere you can feel home. How you can choose what and who that means for you.

Please catch this production if you can and read the book too. But please remember your handkerchiefs, you’ll need them.

Tickets for The Ocean at the End of the Lane are on sale at or 02380 711811.

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Author Neil Gaiman joined Mayflower Theatre audience of The Ocean at the End of the Lane