The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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.

Neil Gaiman | The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Interview

The forthcoming tour of the National Theatre’s adaptation of the award-winning book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is coming to The Lowry in Salford. Author Neil Gaiman answers our questions.

The book is loosely based on your childhood. What was the starting point?

The book began with me wanting to try and explain to my wife where I grew up and what that world was like. She could take me to her childhood home because it’s still the same, but I couldn’t take her to where I grew up [in East Grinstead] because the place had long since been demolished; lots of lovely neat little housing estates covered the gardens and the fields and lanes. So for me it was kind of an effort to try and evoke a past and a sense of place.  An interesting side of it for me too was that I realised that I hadn’t heard, for a very long time, the Sussex accent of my childhood. Mrs Weller came in and cleaned once a week and Mr Weller came in and did the gardens. They were probably in their 80s and they had proper Sussex accents – almost like a West Country burr. I resolved to write a novel with that in too.

How did you create the Hempstocks?

I was told by my mother – quite erroneously, I discovered, when I did my research – that the farm half-way down our lane was in the Doomsday Book. And that was the start of the Hempstocks in my head; who they were and what I wanted to do with them.

Do you find writing about family especially fascinating?

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to avoid writing about family, even when I thought I was writing about something else. Whether it’s biological family or the family we make. In the novel I created a semi-fictional family for myself, and in the play version it was one step further away from my family, which I think looking back on is incredibly healthy! But the boy is definitely me.

Neil Gaiman

The play received amazing reviews when it premiered. Without any spoilers, do you have any favourite moments?

There is something astounding about the moment when they enter the ocean. That completely fascinates me. And you’re going to see miracles made out of bits of rubbish and old plastic bags and nightmarish birds beyond your imagination. It still takes me by surprise every time I watch.

Is it true that you were so moved by the play when you saw it in rehearsals that you cried?

I saw the first full run through. About ten minutes from the end I had tears running down my face. I thought that this was terribly embarrassing and I was discreetly trying to flick them away.

You describe yourself as a storyteller. What inspired you to be a writer?

I’m not sure that all writers are frustrated performers, but for me it was the joy in getting to be all of the characters. As a writer you get to do that. Being a kid who loved books I could think of nothing cooler than giving people the pleasure that I got.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens at The Lowry on Monday 12th December and runs until Sunday 8th January tickets available here.