It was with slight alarm when browsing through West End listings the other day that I realised the run of hit show The Ocean At The End Of The Lane was rapidly drawing to a close (mid-May) and that I still hadn’t managed to see it. This is despite trying to get a ticket way back in 2019 for its initial run at the National Theatre and then with all the various complications engendered by Covid – including one intended visit being knocked o the head by contracting it – still persistently missing out. Fortunately, the show has reached the stage now where picking up a day ticket isn’t too much of a hassle, so it was off (finally) to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for something that had taken a long time coming round. Not so this review which, spoiler alert, will contain a good deal of praise.
It’s a piece of magical theatre which works on every level and is fully deserving of the praise which has been heaped on it over the last few years. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel by Joel Harwood its tone reminded me somewhat of A Monster Calls – though this was an even better exploration of the dark underbelly of early adolescence as the unnamed Boy finds himself embroiled in emotional upheaval. He’s a loner at school, failing to connect with his single parent Dad and further traumatised when the lodger brought in to make ends meet commits suicide. Then Ursula moves in and we’re suddenly in “wicked stepmother” territory. This is principally because the ice cool blonde is actually a flea – a creature from another dimension/reality who invades the Boy’s world seeking to dominate those with whom she comes into contact. For support Boy is forced to turn to the Hempstocks, a local trio of farming wise women from across three generations, though they are all clearly old souls who have been around a long time. In particular, Boy pairs up with young (though infinitely old) Lettie and together they take on the dark malignant forces that threaten to overwhelm them.
Obviously this requires a great deal of belief suspension, but the world of the play is so magically conjured up and the actors are so committed to that world, that fortunately this is not difficult. The show I saw was helmed by Tom Mackley (listed as Alternate Boy) who did a fine job of portraying the socially awkward 12 year old who finds himself caught up in events. In particular he really captured the abject terror laced with bravery which faced the character at every turn. The other key characters are all equally well realised with particular stand outs coming from Penny Leyden as the Hempstock matriarch, Nia Towie as the resourceful Lettie and Laura Rogers as the insidiously cruel and smiling villain of the piece. Topping them all, in a performance that was hilarious but at the same time invested with deep truth, is Grace Hogg-Robinson as Boy’s tormentor in chief, Sis; it’s a wondrous creation of a five year old.
What really makes this production sing though are the efforts of the creative team both visually and aurally to bring this world to life – they do so with stunning effect. Paule Constable quite rightly won an Olivier for lighting which has the dramatic impact of a rock concert no doubt prompted by Jherek Bischoff’s thumping synth led underscore and Ian Dickinson’s eerie soundscapes. The set by Fly Davis changes frequently through the well drilled actions of the ensemble – beds, kitchen tables and a whole bathroom glide on and off adding to the magic atmosphere and there is some brilliant use of neon outlined doors as Alice In Wonderland and CS Lewis’s Narnia chronicles are deliberately evoked. Sleight of hand and illusion work to put the magic in magic realism And I’m still not sure how Ursula was able to exit stage right and then immediately reappear stage left. Then there is the puppetry, designed by Samuel Wyler, which almost (though not quite) eclipses that in Life Of Pi which is playing just round the corner. Finn Caldwell is responsible for directing this aspect in both shows and does so to stunning effect; his West End moment (and let’s hope it’s an extended one) has definitely come. The whole is thrillingly co-ordinated and directed by Katy Rudd who doesn’t shy away from the heart stopping moment – her moment has also arrived.
This is a brilliantly realised adaptation which unflinchingly confronts the darker aspects of life and introduces more than a mere sprinkling of magic dust. I can now see what all the fuss has been about and if you haven’t caught this production then you’ve still got about three weeks’ worth of opportunities to do so. Take my advice, seize one of them and don’t let go. You’ll be raving about it for weeks.