Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Duke Of York's Theatre

The National Theatre adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel opens in the Went End in what's contemporary theatre at its best.

By: Nov. 05, 2021
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Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Duke Of York's Theatre

Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Duke Of York's Theatre "Remembering is not different from imagining" says Old Mrs Hemlock to the Boy, all grown up now, as he tries to secure his recollection of the past. Neil Gaiman's book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is bewitching. It holds a deep pull for people of all ages, who find common ground in its journey. It's an incredible feat to take everything that the novel is and translate its feeling and atmosphere for the stage, but writer Joel Horwood and director Katy Rudd achieve the impossible.

The project started in the belly of the National back in 2016 when the team first approached Gaiman, but we wouldn't see the results until 2019, when it premiered at the Dorfman. It was an instant hit, selling out the entire run. It's easy to understand why. A West End transfer was announced, then theatres went dark. Now, this gem of a show has finally opened at the Duke of York's Theatre.

An unnamed man (Nicolas Tennant) goes back to his hometown for a funeral. As he stares into a pond at the edge of the farmhouse where he shared many memories with his childhood friend Lettie (Nia Towle), he is approached by her grandmother, Old Mrs Hempstock (Penny Layden). He is suddenly transported back to his 12th birthday and what happened after that.

This play sits on a different level of theatre-making craft from what the West End is offering now, and with a "Magic and Illusions Director and Designer" in the company (Jamie Harrison) you would expect so. Mesmerising, astonishing stagecraft coexists with a distinct lack of gimmicky illusions that leave space for pure theatre magic. Horwood's text captures Gaiman's insightful and vivid imagery, which is then perfectly painted on stage by Rudd's clear direction and immaculate pace.

There are no missteps and no grey areas in what is contemporary theatre at its best. Fly Davis's set design is the gift that keeps on giving. From the cold, bare twigs that compose the scary woods where creatures lurk, she builds a world of fleas that aren't fleas and scavengers that will eat your heart out of your chest.

The ensemble mould into anything that helps or hinders our heroes in their quest. They move scenes along, with actors carrying over from one to the next while props appear out of thin air, creating the fluid illusion of a long-take film or of a seamless dream. Puppet and costume designer Samuel Wyer and puppetry director Finn Caldwell steal the show, with the flea as the highlight. The creature is terrifying, towering over James Bamford's Boy and Towle spider-like and seemingly decomposing in front of our eyes.

The exquisite visuals, thank goodness, simply are the cherry on top of this theatrical masterpiece. The core of the play (and the novel) is a profound look into friendship, family, and grief. The Boy, his Dad (Tennant again), and Sis (Grace Hogg-Robinson) are still dealing with the loss of their mother and wife, desperately trying to regain balance.

Boy is a lonely nerd who loves reading and making up stories, while his sister is an excited child who craves attention and a mother figure. Their dad does the best he can. While at home the feeling of isolation and disengagement is overwhelming, at the Hempstock farmhouse the three women are warm, affectionate, and, most of all, supportive. They give him a chance to be himself. He fights for the truth bravely as Ursula (Laura Rogers) takes over his home, destroying what little safety and refuge he has left.

Monsters become points of view and imagination is nurtured and welcomed. A pond becomes an ocean where possibilities begin (much like the theatre); and the bonds and friendships we create are what ultimately saves us from darkness and fear. This production is the epitome of a must-see.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 24 April, 2022.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan