The Ocean at the End of the Lane Review – Empire Theatre, Liverpool

The Ocean At The End Of The Lake
Image Source: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Show: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool
Date: Tuesday, May 2 to Saturday, May 6; on tour until October 2023
Time: 19.30
Running Time: 150 minutes
Age Rating: 12+
Producer: The National Theatre
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Director: Katy Rudd
Set Designer: Fly Davis
Lightning Designer: Paule Constable
Composer: Jherek Bischoff
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson (for Autograph)
Movement Director: Steven Hoggett
Magic and Illusions Director and Designer: Jamie Harrison
Puppetry Director: Finn Caldwell

My review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So which did come first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, read the book then see the show, or vice versa? Well, this is so complex, it would help to know the story but you soon get swept along with it, although a slow start, when a man revisits his childhood haunts. That really is le mot juste. Be warned, some scenes in The Ocean at the End of the Lane are extremely disturbing: the monsters in our imagination, those under the bed, are as much found in family situations as in scary apparitions. Never mind edge of your seat, some people could end up on the verge of a panic attack. Bit extreme? OK, it could get to your nerves, playing on them shall we say, because it has you constantly holding your breath for the Boy, hoping to goodness that he will escape. And as the enthralled audience was all ages, including young children, 12+ could have been the rule not a recommendation.

Once the Boy goes back to his 12th birthday, everything springs into motion, and bookish children (God love ‘em) will be delighted with all the many literary references including the heartening idea that reciting your favourite works may help to keep evil at bay. It’s as intense as the Bible, and the manifestation of the Enemy would give William Blake a run for his money. Speaking of movement, the choreography is spell-binding, and so is the music, sound and lightening. The special effects are out of this world, while the scene changes, and some scenes themselves, are effectively and magically done with a team of shape-shifters.

Set in a huge gloomy wood, at times the domestic interiors seem a little forlorn on the vast stage, both that of the boy’s family, the squabbling siblings and the widowed father trying so hard to keep everything together, and the apparently lavish Hempstock farm with its cosy kitchen which houses three generations, including Lettie, who befriends the Boy.

It’s all down to Millie Hikasa, who is truly a force of Nature, whether comical with her wheedling or passionate when wielding magic. As for Old Mrs Hempstock, Finty Williams is no doubt fed up of being referred to as a chip of the old block (Judi Dench) so no jokes about any wooden acting. And no need, as she is just as amazing. It doesn’t allow much leeway for daughter and mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) but shine she does in understated fashion, being down-to-earth and practical by comparison. When things go horribly wrong, and you wait and see how very horrible they become, enter Ursula, words which carry the same forboding as Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Charlie Brooks makes a meal of this sinister, insidious villain who worms her way into the hearts of Dad and daughter, then takes dreadful revenge when the Boy tries to resist.

Compared with such powerful women, Keir Ogilvy has his work cut out to make the hero but his efforts are valiantly done, his bravery unquestionable. It’s not easy to make an introverted bookworm with no friends sympathetic, particularly when he describes himself as weird. Nor a bumbling, hapless father, but Trevor Fox similarly manages the role very well, and both are provided with a sparky contrast in Laurie Ogden’s infuriating Sis.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane sums up as one of the most remarkable productions I have ever seen, a beautifully realised collaboration of dialogue and directing, acting and staging, all ingenious. Phenomenal, epic – I’m lost for words, except to say, unmissable. I can’t wait to read the book!

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Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding