The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Apr 19 2023 | By More

★★★★★    Breathtaking

Festival Theatre: Tue 18 – Sat 22 Apr 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Anyone with even a passing interest in fantasy should certainly go and see The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the Festival Theatre. As should anyone who has ever suffered loss, ever been a child, or who wants to see a theatricalh production whose storytelling drive is matched by its extraordinary visual power.

Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel of 2013 was first adapted for the stage at the UK National Theatre in 2019 and, after West End success, is now touring.

A scene from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The book, telling the story of a man returning to his childhood home for his father’s funeral and finding lost memories connected with nearby Hempstock Farm, combines realism and fantasy in a way that is extremely successful.

Many of the potential audience will undoubtedly be fans of Gaiman, so adapter Joel Horwood understandably stays very close to the original narrative. He and director Katy Rudd have also managed to create something that succeeds spectacularly as a theatrical experience.

This is one of those rare large-scale productions where everything is in the service of the storytelling, with a dedicated team of professionals all at the top of their game. Hugely effective in their own right, the lighting of Paule Constable, the sound of Ian Dickinson, the design of Fly Davis and the music of Jherek Bischoff are all seamlessly integrated into the whole.


Even more impressive is the way that Jamie Harrison’s (often jaw-dropping) illusions, or the puppetry (design by Samuel Wyer, directed by Finn Caldwell) combine so coherently with the storyline. This is echoed by the ensemble, aided by the magnificent movement direction of Steven Hoggett, providing such urgent storytelling and interacting so naturally with the principals.

It restores your faith in the visual power of theatre – inventive and arresting, and doing those things only live theatre can accomplish, rather than providing inferior imitations of other artistic forms.

A scene from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Breathtaking as all of this may be, it would be of little use were it not in the service of the story’s emotional heart, and this is where the real achievement of director Rudd lies, giving the production genuine power.

It is possible to read the supernatural elements of the story as the projections and rationalisations of a withdrawn and imaginative twelve-year-old, struggling to deal with the death of his mother, and his dislike of his father’s new partner.

While this may be present to a lesser degree in the stage version, it is still definitely there; for all the impact of the scary puppets, it is the scenes of grief, abuse and childhood trauma that are most chilling. For example, while Charlie Brooks (best known for EastEnders) is pretty good as a monster from the edge of another world, when she is in a domestic setting she is simply terrifying.

impressively flinty

Similar impact is provided by the tremendous Trevor Fox as the unnamed central character’s father (he also plays the older version of the boy in the framing scenes), and Laurie Ogden as his sister.

Finty Williams, as the enigmatic Old Mrs Hempstock, balances gravitas, mystery and humour very well, while Kemi-Bo Jacobs as her daughter has an impressively flinty yet emotional core.

A scene from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The centre of the story however is undoubtedly the nameless protagonist (Keir Ogilvy) and his friendship with Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa). Ogilvy and Hikasa are both excellent, avoiding the pitfalls inherent in playing a character who is younger – or, in Lettie’s case, perhaps not as young as she first appears. They are both performances of rare grace and real emotional truth.

As well as being so compelling visually, and being such a notable success in the tricky business of depicting elements of the fantastic on stage, this is a profoundly affecting musing on memory, identity, grief, and growing up. It rings true emotionally, which makes it a melancholy watch at times. However, ultimately it paints a thoroughly positive picture both of the resilience of the human spirit and of the creative possibilities of live theatre.

Running time: Two hours 35 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson St, EH8 9FT
Tuesday 18 – Saturday 22 April 2023
Evenings at 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs & Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

Glasgow King’s Theatre, 297 Bath St, Glasgow G2 4JN
Tue 29 Aug – Sat 2 Sept 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm; Wed, Sat mats: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

A scene from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pic: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg


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