The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman, adapted by Joel Horwood
National Theatre
Dorfman, National Theatre
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Death, guilt and regret hang over the NT adaptation of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It begins and ends with the funeral of the unnamed central character’s father. The event triggers his memories of childhood, of his birthday aged twelve when he opened the door of his father’s car to get a birthday gift, only to discover the dead body of the lodger who had committed suicide.

That birthday had been disturbing in a number of ways. There was supposed to be a party but no one had come, for, as he explains, he doesn't have friends.

Perhaps they feared they would end up dead given the number of characters around him who seem to face a bleak end.

And yet there is humour even in unexpected places, with the fine comic timing of Samuel Blenkin as the Boy for instance telling his dad (Justin Salinger) why he hasn’t got his present from the car: “because there is a dead man in our car."

Of course it is a peculiar humour that raises a laugh about a tragedy and the father's response, to rush out to the car to get the gift without even a flicker of interest in or sympathy for his dead lodger, is weird.

This is not the usual Christmas fare, though the striking back tunnel set of tangled wood, the fluent swift-moving puppetry and the tricksy magic of somehow having a character walk towards the back of the stage then just as quickly reappear from the opposite direction will delight, even if the story offers little cheer.

All these things help deliver a dialogue that doesn't carry any depth and sometimes simply tells us stuff or sets a scene rather than exploring situations or character.

Beware the outsider might be the message. The first outsider is the miner killing himself. Then there is the new nanny, Ursula (Pippa Nixon), hedging towards becoming the new stepmother. She may cook wonderful food, teach the boy’s sister to play the piano and make his dad feel less lonely after their mother died the year before but she is an outsider and therefore evil, a monster.

Fortunately, the Boy, who hates change, dislikes outsiders and has no friends, walks down the lane and meets Lettie Hempstock (Marli Siu), a girl one year younger but a whole lot wiser. Not only is she local but her family has been there for thousands of years so they are not outsiders. He will get her into scrapes galore and even put her life at risk, but he trusts and cares for her in a way he fails to trust anyone else.

It's hard to imagine this morbid, claustrophobic story appealing to any children and its politically conservative anxieties about outsiders, social change and the prospect of a stepmother ought to bug an average liberal. But the brilliance of its visual style, curious humour and unsettling soundscape will find it an audience even if its festive message lacks the hope, the generosity, the fun we would normally expect of a Christmas show.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna