Writer: Neil Gaiman
Adaptor: Joel Horwood
Director: Katy Rudd
In the programme, Neil Gaiman tells us that his award-winning book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was partly inspired by an old farm near where he grew up, a farm that was, apparently, mentioned in the Domesday Book, and by his younger self. His book weaves together themes of memory, magic, shared heritage and survival. Subsequently adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, the play now gives us the opportunity to share in the experience of what happened that fateful time to our 12-year-old protagonist and how our memories of events change, fade and reassert themselves.
We never learn the names of the family at the centre. We do know that times have been hard since Mom died leaving Dad, the boy and his sister to fend for themselves. A tragic event on the border of the Hempstocks’ farm opens a rent between two worlds giving something dark and malevolent an opportunity. All that can stand against this evil is three generations of the Hempstock family – Old Mrs Hempstock, her daughter Ginny and her daughter, Lettie – together with the boy. There’s something rather timeless about the Hempstocks, almost as if they are part of the landscape.
On entering the theatre, one is immediately struck by Fly Davis’ set. Spooky, silver trees seem to go on forever and draw you in. Supported by Paule Constable’s monochromatic lighting scheme, we are transported between locations, always with a sense of eerie otherworldliness – supported by Steven Hoggett’s supremely well-choreographed movements of the ensemble. Our moods are further massaged by Jherek Bischoff’s music and soundscape, leaving us in a constant state of slight unease.
The growing relationship, including its missteps, between Lettie (Millie Hikasa), and the boy (Keir Ogilvie) is central and brought to life believably. Lettie finds herself pulled in opposing directions by family and the boy. Ogilvy expertly portrays the bookish boy who prefers fantasy worlds to the real one he inhabits – indeed, he cleverly uses his knowledge of Narnia as a weapon. Hikasa and Ogilvie show us just what it is like to be 12 and on the cusp of adulthood, even while you are somehow different to those around you. Finty Williams is superb as the matriarch, Old Mrs Hempstock, while Charlie Brooks brings a seething malevolence to the evil that is Ursula. On this occasion, Dad and Sis were played by Joe Rawlinson-Hunt and Aimee McGoldrick: their acceptance of Ursula’s wiles and subsequent descent is well drawn.
This is a highly technical production, with set elements moving smoothly in, out and around with elements of puppetry and stage magic; on this occasion, a couple of technical issues paused the production, one at a point of rapidly developing tension, which was unfortunate as the otherwise excellent emotional ebb and flow as tension is ratcheted up and then released was disturbed as a result. Nevertheless, this is an excellent production – think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on speed. It reminds those of us for whom being 12 is a distant memory just how that feels as we get behind the boy and Lettie and all the rest on their journey.
Runs until 30 September 2023 and on tour