The Ocean at the End of the Lane – The Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Adaptor: Joel Horwood

Director: Katy Rudd

What age do we stop playing? At which point in our maturity do we lose interest in running around a forest pretending to be Robin Hood, pretending there are dinosaurs in the garden, thinking the floor is lava or that we are actually, today, literally a knight in armour?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane sits at this wonderful intersection of growing-up, magic, imagination and memory.This is a hugely ambitious and beautifully rendered story about a family dealing with trauma and the fantastical happenings that take place as the Boy works through it.

Told as an extended flashback on the day of Dad’s funeral, it mainly takes place in 1983 after Dad and Boy (on his 12th birthday) find the body of their lodger after he committed suicide on a remote country lane. While Dad deals with the police, Boy is cared for in a nearby farmhouse by Lettie Hempstock, who may be another 12 year old or may be an ancient mystical force, and his world turns to one of adventure, magic, danger and bravery. When he and Lettie accidentally unleash a dangerous magical being that immediately moves into his house as a beautiful woman and takes over his family, he finds there’s a lot of growing up to do.

The problem with this is succinctly put by Lettie herself : “The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups in all of forever.” The play is an extended lesson in realising we’re all, children and adults alike, putting on a performance and our appearances can be thoroughly deceiving. This idea of hidden worlds and different perceptions is passionately explored. An explanation that even our memories are unreliable, becoming mixed with imagination, means anything is possible. It becomes a very “grown up” play but told from a refreshing and energising adolescent’s point of view. At its core, it’s about processing familial loss and grief, something that gets elided and covered by the spectacle of the performance but does still play a substantial driving part to the overall piece.

All of this means magic on the stage and in the atmosphere. For one thing, Boy has a wormhole to another dimension running from his wrist to his heart. We see sleight of hand tricks throughout, producing full glasses of milk from thin air, a costume change, and many other subtle delights. We also see huge demons, complex magical fights and charming shifts from the mundane to the magical. The performances, the breathtaking, versatile sets and the punchy audio / visual effects work in concert to deliver a moving and delightful result. The production team responsible – Fly Davis with the set, movement directed by Steven Hoggett, lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Ian Dickinson and magic created by Jamie Harrison – almost become the stars of this show.

They cannot take that away from the young performers, however. As Lettie, Nia Towle is a charismatic, joyous and nuanced lead. Alongside her as Boy, James Bamford is the perfect medium through which we all feel the heat and pressure of his family’s trauma, his loneliness, and his wonder at the magic he now sees around him. With them, you couldn’t ask for a better mystical grandmother than Penny Layden, or an unsettling evil spirit cum beautiful new lodger than Laura Rogers.

Joel Horwood and Katy Rudd have already seen success with this interpretation of Gaiman’s book at the National Theatre. The transfer over to the Duke of York’s seems not to have dimmed any of the impact or curbed the bombast and sense of scale. This play about magic and memory forces us to consider our own internal worlds and reconsider our juvenile minds and experiences. We can all think back to our childhood games. Gaiman and the production here forces us to wonder “what if it was real?”

Runs until 14 May 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Ambitious and beautifully rendered story

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. 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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