Writer: Neil Gaiman
Adaptor: Joel Horwood
Director: Katy Rudd
Based upon Neil Gaiman’s fantastical novel, and a successful run at the National Theatre, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is out on tour. Thank goodness, as this magical adventure is truly one of those once in a generation theatrical moments that all audiences need to see. It is a tale of life and death and everything around the edges.
The narrative centres around an unnamed protagonist who returns to his childhood home following the death of his father. Whilst there, he has a chance meeting with the grandmother of a childhood friend and here the magic ensues as we are transported back to the early 1980s and are exposed to the memories of the 12-year-old boy.
Tragically the boy’s life is marred with grief. Having witnessed the suicide of the lodger, the boy meets Lettie, a pixie like girl who appears to be his saviour. The boy is weary from past experiences and struggles to trust those around him. This is why when Lettie instructs him not to let go of her hand, he lies, thus enabling the evil Skarthach to cross boundaries into their world, and so the adventure begins.
It is never made clear as to whether the boy (Keir Ogilvy) is experiencing true memories or is simply imagining a world like those seen in the fantasy books that he so loves.What is clear is that Ogilvy is a fantastic leading man. He has all of the vulnerabilities of a 12-year-old boy but with the gravitas of a much more seasoned performer. His on-stage chemistry with Lettie (Millie Hikasa) is earnest and wholesome. Together they create some truly breathtaking moments.The first being a fight with an enormous articulated flea, where Hikasa engages the whole set with her mysterious magical skills. And the second being an underwater sequence involving some spectacular illuminated puppets.
Katy Rudd and her crack team of stellar creatives have put together the most gripping theatrical spectacle. Her direction is succinct and swift, transporting the audience from grim reality to whimsical fantasy in the blink of an eye. The set by Fly Davis consists of receding pillars of tangled twigs and branches leading to one large arch shaped portal upstage. Lettie herself, and her family, feel like an extension of the set. Eclectic and earthy, there is an ancient wisdom that appears to be embroidered through them. It looks whimsical and enchanting, but the baron branches add a sense of foreboding that cannot be shaken off. It is lit in a gorgeous gradient of hot orange to icy white, casting menacing shadows across the opening scene and throughout.
Paule Constable’s lighting design is artistry in motion. It brilliantly connects with the fluidity of Steven Hoggett’s incredible movement direction. As the ensemble company ebbs and flows like water to create the rapid transitions, so too does the lighting. Surfaces are backlit, under lit and spotlighted in a way that mimics reflections upon water. The result is a visual feast of effects that will leave audiences gripping the edge of their seats. Rudd’s choice to have the ensemble move as a singular organism is a stroke of genius. They animate set, fly actors in the most ambitious holds and they propel the action forward at an unrelenting pace.
From the impressive flea puppetry scene, we are introduced to Ursula (Charlie Brooks), the evil lodger who buys her way into the affections of the boy’s family using food and money.
Brooks is deliciously devilish and haunts the boy in a series of impressive stunts, seemingly defying the laws of physics. To explain the hows or why’s would be to ruin the surprises, but within the domestic setting of the boy’s home, she is an omnipresent menace.
Rated a 12+, there are scenes within the show where Brooks is genuinely terrifying, and there is a level of brutality in some scenes that may trigger viewers of a nervous disposition. One particular scene in the bathroom leaves the audience aghast with horror as they are forced to witness a frenzied depiction of child abuse. Whilst an unpleasant scene to watch, it forms an integral part of the story and ultimately makes the innocence of the other scenes all the more endearing.
This show is a modern masterpiece. An offering of tween fantasy with visual moments that will never leave you.
Runs until 1 July 2023 and on tour