A lasting and definitive piece of drama.

By: Dec. 21, 2022
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Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, The Lowry "I didn't really know if my story was going to work for the stage", author Neil Gaiman has confessed about this, the most personal of his novels. True, many of its fantasy elements defy live adaptation, but with the launch of a major national tour commencing at The Lowry in Salford this month, any suggestion that this inherently theatrical story was anything but destined for the stage has been thoroughly dispelled.

Just over a year after the opening of its West End run at the Duke of York's Theatre, the critically acclaimed production remains a singularly thrilling piece of storytelling.

Gaiman's book has been adapted by Joel Horwood and follows the story of a young boy whose unexpected swan-dive into a fantastical world that converges terrifyingly with his own widens the growing rift between himself and his overwhelmed widower father. On stage, the play tells two stories: an overtly dreamlike epic flooded with monsters and magic and a vital, pulsing undercurrent which unpacks the complexities of childhood trauma and grief.

The triumph of this staging is that it represents an ingenious collaboration of tremendous artistry: Paule Constable's Olivier-Award winning lighting design shimmers in tandem with Ian Dickinson's sound design and Jherek Bischoff's chillingly atmospheric compositions. A set design from Fly Davis sees the playing space flanked by otherworldly thorns with ample empty darkness in which Jamie Harrison's genuinely astounding magic thrives. Meanwhile Steven Hoggett oversees stylistic movement and Samuel Wyer's puppetry designs enchant under the expert direction of Finn Caldwell, all with visionary Katy Rudd at the helm.

On the show's illusions: though they left me too awestruck to spoil them for you even if I wanted to, they are a brilliant, hidden ace-card-up-the-sleeve of a play that, in its early exposition, suggests its storytelling will be conducted by a very visible ensemble. That the style of performance proves so adaptive, with later forays into puppetry and uncanny trickery, is a brilliant deception that drags the audience alongside the protagonist into uncertain waters.

Newly assembled for the touring production, this company moves with fluid cohesion and performs with feverish intensity. Keir Ogilvy leads us distraughtly on the plunge into Boy's story as the character's younger self, with Trevor Fox book-ending Boy's narrative in adulthood. With the majority of the play taking place in 1983, Fox also plays Boy's father and declines the easy option of a brutish characterisation, opting instead for a deeply broken man whose desperation drives him to abuse. Charlie Brooks draws on her considerable soap experience as an inevitably monstrous femme-fatale while as Old Mrs Hempstock, Finty Williams alternately deploys bumbling charm and tremendous power.

Its moments of levity feel like a hearty meal among family, while its darker scenes are familiar of the kind of nightmare that's too gripping to escape. More than exceptional storytelling, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a brilliant reminder of what can be achieved by The National Theatre: a lasting and definitive piece of drama that enthrals and speaks profoundly to audience members of every generation.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is at The Lowry until 8 January 2023, then touring

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg



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