DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – Newcastle Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Adaptor: Joel Horwood

Director: Katy Rudd

Based on Neil Gaiman’s bestselling novel, published in 2013, which was hailed as a classic of magical realism, the play tells the tale of a middle-aged man returning to his childhood home for a funeral. He visits a pond on a nearby farm where he remembers a girl he knew when he was twelve, Lettie Hempstock, who claimed that the pond was an ocean. He then begins to remember the events of his childhood, when he and Lettie had to tackle an evil spirit trying to find its way into their world through a disturbance caused by the suicide of the boy’s lodger. Lettie and her family are powerful sorceresses and the farm has enchantments of its own.

The spirit finds its way into the boy’s house, through a rather graphic means, employing one of the play’s many brilliantly realised special effects, and manifests itself as Ursula, a female lodger who quickly ingratiates herself with his father and sister and traps him in the house, so he is unable to get help.

Ultimately, he escapes to Lettie’s home and a series of magical and harrowing events take place in their efforts to vanquish the spirit, leading to further unforeseen difficulties to be overcome. After these events have played out, the scene returns to the present and the man reaches a kind of closure.

The National Theatre’s production has extremely high production values, as one would expect. The set design by Fly Davis is appropriately magical, scene changes made using the extraordinary ensemble’s fluid and entrancing movements, directed by Steven Hoggett, that permeate the piece to great effect.

Joel Horwood’s intelligent script is sprinkled with lighter moments, mostly resulting from the interaction between Millie Hikasa’s engaging and energetic Lettie and Keir Ogilvy’s tour de force performance as the boy. These two are the engine of the piece and Ogilvy is never off stage, brilliantly evoking both the awkwardness and the emerging strength of the young boy, believably reacting to all the horrors he must face. These horrors do not arise only from the magical creatures; some of the events within his household, albeit under Ursula’s influence, are deeply disturbing.

Amid some outstanding puppetry, designed by Samuel Wyer and directed by Finn Caldwell and Jamie Harrison’s baffling illusions, the strong cast nonetheless holds its own.

Finty Williams is wonderfully warm and commanding as the aged but powerful matriarch of the Hempstock family and Kemi-Bo Jacobs is persuasive as her gruff daughter.

Trevor Fox, doubling as the man and the boy’s father, handles the contradictions of his role well, as a well-meaning but unimaginative single parent falling under the influence of the malign Ursula. Laurie Ogden also convinces as the boy’s sister. Charlie Brooks gives a striking performance as Ursula, alternating between convincingly charming and disturbingly vicious.

Paule Constable’s impressive lighting design and Jherek Bischoff’s powerful and evocative music both serve the piece extremely well.

This is an impressive theatrical achievement all round, with one of our greatest theatre companies at the top of its game. However, this is not a piece for the faint-hearted or the very young. With some truly terrifying puppets and fairly horrific, if stylised, scenes of injury and even disembowelment, it has a powerfully nightmarish quality. Couple this with distressing themes of suicide, bereavement and child abuse, and it is clear that caution is needed.

Runs until 22nd July 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Dazzlingly disturbing

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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