Reviewed by Matthew Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
At the festive time, The Lowry, has always made some bold choices for their big Christmas show. Past shows have seen family favourites and classic works of literature brought to the Lyric Theatre stage with great success. Well, this Christmas the Lowry has made their boldest choice to date, with the National Theatre production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and boy does it pay off. If the old saying of, “fortune favours the brave” is anything to go by then those rewards go to the audience members who will be treated to a gripping, powerful, fantasy, brought to life in truly jaw dropping fashion, with spectacular visuals and performances that will live long in the memory.
Based on the 2013 novel by Neil Gaiman and adapted by Joel Horwood, the production opens in the present day, as a nameless man (Trevor Fox), buries his father, he comes across a place familiar to him from his childhood, where he encounters a rather eccentric, yet familiar old lady. It is here that man is transported back to his 12th birthday where his world would change forever.
Set in the early 1980’s the nameless boy (Keir Ogilvy) has stumbled on a truly shocking incident, his father (Fox in a dual role) attempts to shield him from this, fortunately a young woman, Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikassa) offers to take the boy to her family farm until the incident is cleared up.
It’s down on the farm that the boy meets Lettie’s family: her mum Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and her granny, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams), the eccentric lady we met at the start. Through his friendship with Lettie that the boy witnesses a series of pretty freaky occurrences such as lifeless fish, dead from swallowing a 50 pence piece, Lettie and her family’s ability to predict the future right before it happens, talk of creatures that regularly infiltrate our world, and finally a puddle of water that is a portal to alternate reality.
Back at home the boy struggles with recent events, in addition there is a far from perfect homelife: he is motherless, has clashes and petty squabbles with his sister (Laurie Ogden), and an inability to communicate with a father trying to do the best he can with his children.
The situation becomes all the worse, when the eponymous young man and Lettie do battle with one of these invading beasts and unwittingly unleash another creature. The being infiltrates the boy’s home in the guise of glamorous lodger, Ursula (Charlie Brooks) who morphs into exactly what the family crave, a mother figure to the children and a companion and lover to the father. Along with Lettie, and her family of strong-willed mystics, the boy must confront his fears in order to save his family, and himself from a monster that knows his every fear and every desire.
As productions go this is truly EPIC, and one that will astound, amaze and exhilarate its audience. After an initial gentle start where you try to figure out what’s going on, and what’s going to happen (I know all the fun stuff!) the action kicks off with a stunning and beautifully choreographed battle that begins a series of mind-blowing set pieces, which will enthral as they will send a shiver down the spine!
The performances are fantastic: Keir Ogilvy and Millie Hikasa are wonderful as the misfit, best friends, it’s a beautiful partnership filled with warmth, quirkiness and genuine friendship. The pair bounce off each other throughout and are the beating heart of the show. EastEnders Charlie Brooks, complete with Glen Close hair from Fatal Attraction is brilliant as wicked seductress, Ursula. Sometimes you wish Brookes would get to play a nice character for a change, but why should she when she does evil so well.
There are strong supporting performances throughout from Trevor Fox in a measured, restrained turn as the tired, beleaguered Dad, whilst Finty Williams and Laurie Ogden between them have the lion’s share of comedic lines.
Director Katy Rudd has masterfully brought this much cherished book to the stage using talent at the top of their game. The set design by Fly Davis is eerie, and intimidating, bringing the woods to life where most of the drama unfolds. Whilst the scenes in the Hampstock kitchen resemble that of a painting or a Peter Greenaway film.
The lighting and sound design by Paule Constable and Ian Dickinson respectively are pretty much perfect, atmospheric, and a proper shock to the senses when they need to be.
For older people like myself this is a hark back to fantasy adventure films of the 1980’s from Never Ending Story, Legend and The Return to Oz (the Wheelers I’m thinking of you!). Whilst younger audience members will associate this with Stranger Things. For fans of this genre, you’ll absolutely love this. However, it’s all that and so much more tackling issues such as loss, grief and the importance of talking to our loved ones.
It’s an unsettling, magical piece of theatre, which will blow you away and fully demonstrates just how good live theatre can be. I cannot urge you enough to go see this production this holiday season, so what you are waiting for go book your tickets NOW!
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the Lowry until 8th January, tickets available here.