Of all of Neil Gaiman’s novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably the one most suited for a stage adaptation. While stuffed full of magic and monsters and other such fantasy, it’s more of a quiet story at heart. Introspective, even. A story about what we choose to remember and what we don’t. About a boy who has to grow up a bit too quickly. And it’s these elements that Joel Howrood’s adaptation, the basis for the critically acclaimed National Theatre stage production, focuses on. Perfectly capturing the feeling of wading through an ocean of memories, Horwood’s script faithfully adapts Gaiman’s novel with all of the adventure and emotion you’d want. I haven’t seen the play yet, but the script is a breathtaking piece of writing all to itself. And I can only imagine how brilliantly it translates on stage.
NOTE: This review contains mild spoilers for both the original novel and Joel Horwood’s adaptation of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Returning to his childhood home, a man finds himself standing beside the pond of the old Sussex farmhouse where he used to play. When he meets an old friend, he is reminded of a name he has not heard for many years: Lettie Hempstock. And is transported to his 12th birthday, when Lettie claimed that this wasn’t a pond at all, but an ocean…
Plunged into 1983, our young protagonist struggles with the ripples of a disturbing event that makes him question his deepest assumptions about his fractured family. Striving to come to terms with his newly unknowable world, together with his new friend Lettie he must reckon with ancient forces that threaten to destroy everything and in turn learn to trust others to find his own feet.
There’s little need to discuss the plot in any real detail. Horwood’s adaptation is more or less exactly the same story as it the novel, with a few changes that make it work a bit better on stage. After learning of the death of his family’s most recent lodger, the unnamed protagonist (“Boy” in the script) meets Lettie Hempstock, the youngest of the Hempstock women who take care of a nearby farm and the “Ocean” that lays behind it. As the two grow closer, their adventures take them past the Hempstock farm and into the Edges, a realm where a mysterious creature uses the protagonist as transport back to our world. And as this creature takes root, it’s up to the protagonist and Lettie to send it back to where it came from. The bulk of the story plays out pretty much the same as it does in the book. In fact, Horwood’s script adapts Gaiman’s novel fairly faithfully.
As you might expect, Horwood does condense and truncate a few things here and there, to better shape the story as a stage show rather than a novel. But, mostly, he doesn’t change anything too major. Except for the complete erasure of the Boy’s mother (in the script, she dies a year before the story begins) and changing the Boy’s age from seven to twelve. To be fair, both of these changes work perfectly in this adaptation. And, functionally, they change very little of the narrative. But they are the most obvious changes, and big fans of the book are sure to notice them. Regardless, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more faithful adaptation. Reading Horwood’s script generated all of the same emotions I usually get when reading Gaiman’s original novel – and even amplified a few. It’s a thrilling, emotional, heartbreaking read. And one that takes great advantage of being a play.
Like the novel, Horwood’s script focuses on the protagonist’s relationship with his own memories. The play retains the novel’s framing device, with the grown-up protagonist visiting Hempstock Farm in the present day and slowly remembering this traumatic event. But the play takes this focus on memories a step further. Most plays are neatly divided into acts and scenes, with a new scene happening every time the setting changes. Horwood’s script, however, forgoes this tradition. Instead, each act is presented as one continuous scene. All of the transitions between times and locations are done very fluidly, as though characters are jumping from one moment to the next. This gives the whole play a very memory-like feeling.
Memories have no connective tissue. They end as abruptly as they begin. And that’s basically how Horwood’s script reads. Like the audience is right next to the protagonist as he wades through his memories, bouncing from one moment to the next. It’s quite an abstract feeling, but one that’s immediately captivating. And uniquely theatrical. You can easily imagine the actors and set pieces just appearing onstage, out of the ether. And this feeling imbues the script with a sense of magic and other-worldliness. I love plays that make creative use of the form, really playing with what’s possible on stage. And that’s exactly what Horwood does here.
On that note, Horwood’s stage directions lean even further into this playfulness. As he says in his “Staging Notes,” his stage directions should feel “inspirational and challenging” rather than “prohibitively nuts.” And I’d say he easily accomplishes that. To those without a background in theatre, Horwood’s stage directions might not seem particularly noteworthy. After all, they simply describe what is happening. But what struck me about Horwood’s directions is just how direct they are. They’re not overly concerned with explaining how to pull off whatever’s happening. There’s not an abundance of “and a puppet of [x character] arrives on stage” or anything like that. Instead, he just tells you what’s happening, regardless of how outrageous or otherworldly those actions might be.
This makes the script a really compelling read because the stage directions are simultaneously detailed and vague. You know what’s happening but you’re left to imagine how it happens. In many ways, it’s quite similar to reading Gaiman’s novel. Horwood invites you to imagine all the possibilities. To not overly concern yourself with the practicality of depicting otherworldly monsters like those that threaten the protagonist and Lettie. And that’s honestly quite refreshing. Now, I know that the current West End production makes great use of puppetry, and I can assume that a lot of these moments are conveyed through such stage trickery. But the script, itself, neither confirms nor denies that. And so, it accomplishes something which few scripts do – an emphasis on the imagination. And an invitation to dream the impossible.
With that being said, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely one of those plays that need to be seen rather than read. Regardless of how good Horwood’s script is – and it’s genuinely fantastic – there’s just no replacing the magic that his script blatantly lays the groundwork for. Reading this script doesn’t feel like an entire, complete experience. Which is okay! As he says in his Adaptor’s Note, it’s not supposed to. It’s a blueprint that only becomes a play through collaboration with other theatrical artists. But as a blueprint, Horwood’s adaptation of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is breathtaking.
Fans of Gaiman’s original novel will be delighted at how faithful Horwood translates the story. And lovers of theatre will find themselves transported deep into the protagonist’s memories, prompting them to remember their own childhoods. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is packed to the brim with action, terror, and genuine emotion. And Horwood’s script is a must-read. I hope that the play makes its way to America someday – whether as a filmed version of the West End production, a Broadway show, or a touring production. But more than that, I’d love to see Horwood’s adaptation form the basis for other adaptations – audio dramas, films, etc. Based on the script alone, I can’t imagine a better adaptation than the one Horwood and the rest of the play’s creative team have crafted.
4.5 out of 5 wands.