Review by Daz Gale
Every now and then a show comes along that wows audiences and critics alike pretty unanimously. This was the case for The Ocean at the End of the Lane which won acclaim for its run in the West End last year. When a huge tour of the UK and Ireland was announced, there was a worry the magic may not be able to be repeated in a touring production given how huge in scale and technically complicated certain elements of this show are. So did magic strike this show second time around or did it struggle to live up to the hype of its London run?
I went along to see The Ocean at the End of the Lane when it was in the West End last year and remember loving the show though I never had the opportunity to review it. I was excited at the prospect of returning to the show, this time with my reviewer brain switched on. There was also the question of whether it would manage to be as good on second viewing, especially knowing some of the twists and tricks that are used. Suffice to say, I had no reason to worry as this production well and truly blew me away.
Based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of a man transported back to the events of his 12th birthday when his friend Lettie showed him the wonders of a magical world which leads to an ancient force being unleashed on his home. This genre-defying show manages to cram in elements of science-fiction, thriller, fantasy and even elements of horror in a show that promises to have you on the edge of your seat throughout.
The first thing to mention with this production is its glorious set design. Designed by Fly Davis, the eerie staging reveals itself to be full of stunning tricks and effortlessly manages to immerse you into the setting, allowing for true escapism. Ingenious use of lighting from Paule Constable and sound from Ian Dickinson add to the immersion in a production that sees every element tie together to create something truly special. Quite possibly the best designed show you will see for a long time.
The story and the various twists along the way demand some challenging choices for direction. This doesn’t prove to be a problem for Katy Rudd whose direction inspires through its flawless execution, There is the sense that the show has been expanded due in part to the fact it is on a much larger stage at The Lowry than it was in its original West End show. This allows for the whole thing to feel a lot grander while thankfully retaining the intimacy of the story.
It is Neil Gaimans writing, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood that really takes your breath away. Telling a story firmly set in a fantasy world with unbelievable occurrences requires the audience to suspend their disbelief and never dwell on the impossibilities of the story. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does that with ease, bringing the audience in immediately and retaining them throughout in what should be used as a benchmark for how to create pure escapism in theatre. The writing is regularly complex and multifaceted, always having complicated feelings attached to the story and proving itself to be a lot more emotional than you might initially suspect.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is set in a magical world, and the magic that is brought to the stage is a joy to witness, reducing even the most cynical of adults to tears with childlike wonder. With some incredibly clever tricks (Watch out for the door scene. It’s spectacular) and jaw dropping special effects, the world comes alive on the stage with magic, illusions and fantastic puppetry. Another element that brings this otherworldly experience to life is the always impressive movement from Steven Hoggett – effortlessly allowing distinctions for the, shall we say, unconventional characters in the story?
With a story this remarkable and all production elements being consistently brilliant, it is left to the cast to be able to match the high bar that has been set for them before they’ve even stepped foot on the stage. This isn’t a problem for the extraordinary group of people that bring this story to life.
Keir Ogilvy leads the pack in a mesmerising performance as the unnamed “Boy”. In a performance full of sensitivity and complexities, he shows incredibly versatility as an actor and steals the hearts of everybody watching him with his note-perfect portrayal. Trevor Fox plays the role of his Dad with an initial forlornness attempting to mask the tragedy in his life. This slowly ebbs away as other characters away but his journey always feels authentic, thanks to his acting talents.
Finty Williams gives a commanding performance as the mysterious Old Mrs Hempstock. Continually delighting whenever she graces the stage, she is always captivating and perfectly bounces off the interactions with her family members Ginnie Hempstock (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and the deceptively youthful Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa).
Charlie Brooks swaps Albert Square for the end of the Lane in a confident turn as Ursula. While she may be used to playing a villainous character, here she has to tap into someone that isn’t even human (Though some may have said that about Janine Butcher). Relishing the opportunity to try something new, Charlie is sensational as she smirks, struts and even flies across the stage, always controlling the narrative as much as she is controlling the Boys family.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a show that always impresses in every element, none more so than its use of the entire cast. Ensemble members appear on stage, initially seeming like stage-hands until they begin interacting with the main cast members. This unique approach leads to a very different kind of show and means even the most silent of roles in the show will linger in your memory.
Challenging what can be achieved in the theatre, The Ocean at the End of the Lane really is as perfect as it gets and proves that anything is possible when it comes to incredible staging. Beautiful to watch, it really is a feast for the senses. If this was already a work of art when it was in the West End, it is even better this time around in this accomplished, well-rounded and absolutely perfect production. Pure theatre magic in its finest form, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is absolutely unmissable and one show you will never forget.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane plays at The Lowry in Salford until 7th January 2023.
It will then visit a further 28 venues across the UK and Ireland until 30th September 2023.
Full dates and tickets from https://oceanonstage.com/
Photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg