Monday, April 22

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – The Lowry

When a reviewer is compiling their list of ‘Best Shows of the Year’, it is advisable to wait until the end of December until they make their final decision. Tonight, having attended the packed press night for ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ at the opening of its extensive UK tour, I have had to rip up my list for 2022 and start again.

As with many of the classic stories aimed at a younger audience, we begin our tale with loss and grief. A man (Trevor Fox) returns to his family home to bury his Father, an event that acts as the stepping off point, evoking his childhood memories of a series of strange and wonderful adventures for his boyhood self (Keir Ogilvy) and best friend Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa).

A more detailed summary of the plot is superfluous, suffice to say that author Neil Gaiman likes to label his body of work ‘Magical Realism’; a perfect description for what adaptor Joel Horwood has managed to translate to the stage. The recipe is sublime; start with a mix of Lewis Carroll, JM Barrie, Arthur Ransome and JRR Tolkien from the classic canon; add in a sprinkle of JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett for the magic and humour; cover it all with a layer of Netflix ‘Stranger Things’ and bake in an oven marked CS Lewis. What emerges as an enchanting and extraordinary memory play that stands alone as an astounding artistic achievement in its own right.

Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Director Katy Rudd has had a meteoric rise in the decade since graduation and the decisions made in bringing this vision to life are inspired and assured. The Set Design (Fly Davis) of wild trees fringing the stage is complemented by the extraordinary lighting by Paule Constable, changing the mood from warm to threatening in an instant as the story develops. Both puppetry (Fin Caldwell) and illusion (Jamie Harrison) are utilised to stunning effect to confuse and delight the audience, set to a score by Jherek Bischoff that incorporates grandeur and threat to perfection.

However, if any one member of the creative team stamped his mark onto this show, it was Steven Hoggett as Movement Director. As the co-creator of Frantic Assembly Theatre Company, they are responsible for the commercial development of ‘physical theatre’ in the UK over the last thirty years, and his input moved this show from the category of excellent to sublime. Utilising the ensemble of six actors with skilful wit, he incorporated changes of scene as part of the narrative structure making them movement pieces in their own right, then developing this theme to allow the wider fight scenes to take on a balletic sensibility, especially those involving Lettie and her battle with the shape shifting ‘Flea’.

In a production which is powered by such a strong creative vision and executed with excellence, it was great to see the performances not being subsumed by the sheer enormity of the show. Both Hikasa and Ogilvy played characters that were significantly younger than their age with believability and warmth, Ogilvy particularly showed the awkward, angular vulnerability of a 12-year-old boy to perfection. The necessary humourous balance was provided by Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams), her cutting observations allowing the light to puncture an often dark storyline. Trevor Fox managed to convince in the role of the Dad, both loving and warm but also violent and sharp once he comes under the influence of Ursula (Charlie Brooks), the lodger who definitely is not all she seems. Brooks shows her theatrical chops in a gorgeous role that manages to suggest Snow Queen and step mother villainy with delicious cruelty, morphing later into supernatural threat and horror.

The appeal of ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is universal and timeless. Its superb evocation of traditional children’s literature for an older generation, combined with an arresting story that will excite the most jaded teenage palate. When brought to life by a creative team from the National Theatre at the top of their game it is just superb theatre. I urge you not to miss this show.

Playing until 8th January 2022,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 20th December 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★