The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Joel Horwood
National Theatre
The Lowry

Listing details and ticket info...

Millie Hikasa (Lettie), Keir Ogilvy (Boy) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Keir Ogilvy (Boy), Finty Williams (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Millie Hikasa (Lettie) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Finty Williams (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Kemi-Bo Jacobs (Ginnie) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Charlie Brooks (Ursula) and Keir Ogilvy (Boy) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Domonic Ramsden, Keir Oglivy (Boy), Aimee McGolderick and Millie Hikasa (Lettie) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Finty Williams (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Trevor Fox (Dad) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
The cast of The Ocean at the End of the Lane Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Millie Hikasa (Lettie) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Finty Williams (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Trevor Fox (Dad) Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

If you want to see something that is in complete contrast to almost everything else you will find in regional theatres at this time of year, this National Theatre production that begins and ends at a funeral and utilises many classic horror film tropes may well fit the bill.

The story that author Neil Gaiman has described as his most personal focuses on the unnamed "Boy" (Keir Ogilvy) told in flashback from that opening funeral where Trevor Fox plays him as an adult, then later plays his own father. The boy lives with his younger sister (Laurie Ogden) and father, but their mother died a year before, and their lodger has just killed himself in their car following a financial scandal. He wanders onto the Hempstock farm where he meets Lettie (Millie Hikasa), who appears to be a similar age to him but she, her mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and her gran, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams), talk about odd, magical things, which he takes as some kind of game.

But when they catch a fish with a coin in its throat in the duck pond that Lettie calls her "ocean" and the boy finds a similar coin in his mouth when he wakes up, Lettie shows him the gateway to other worlds where she fights some kind of a monster to prevent it crossing over. But the boy lets go of her hand after being told not to and is stung, then finds what looks like a worm buried in his hand, then a new lodger called Ursula (Charlie Brooks) who seems a little too perfect and sweetly manipulative appears from nowhere in their family.

What follows is a visually spectacular dark fantasy from the mind of one of the world's leading creators of such stories, staged in a way that only a company like the National Theatre can, with a production team possibly as large as the casts of all the other shows I've seen this month put together. The full-stage battles with the huge monster look stunning, the bloodied hand coming out of the bath after the boy extracts a six-foot worm out of his hand is straight out of a horror film, as is the clever staging that makes Ursula appear to leave from one side of the stage and reappear instantly on the other, over and over again (magic and illusions by Jamie Harrison).

Katy Rudd's slick, fast-moving production utilises an ensemble extremely effectively, initially mostly as choreographed scene changers (with Steven Hoggett as movement director, who is pretty good at this sort of thing) and puppeteers (puppetry director Finn Caldwell) but with an increasingly sinister presence, later puppeteering the boy and Lettie as they move through the magical ocean.

If the action and the story don't bring you to the edge of your seat, Jherek Bischoff's sinister soundtrack might well do; with Fly Davis on set design, Paule Constable on lighting design and Ian Dickinson on sound, this is a dream production team. The cast are universally excellent, but Hikasa does stand out for her youthful energy, which carries the story along.

This is about as far from a jolly festive show as you can get, framed by a funeral, starting with a suicide and ending with... well I won't spoil it, but it doesn't exactly end happily, but the ride is exhilarating and highly recommended.

Reviewer: David Chadderton