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Reviewed: Ocean at the End of the Lane at Curve

A magical masterpiece of monsters and mixed-up memories.

What’s scarier? The monsters outside your house or the people inside it?

Neil Gaiman’s 2013 fantasy novel Ocean at the End of the Lane was adapted for the stage by National Theatre in 2019.

You could analyse it for days. The play is packed with themes of identity, friendship, repressed memories, abuse and things not being quite as they seem. Showing at Curve until February 11, Ocean at the End of the Lane is full of mystery, drama, thrills, magic and trickery.

A lavish set design of forest branches crawling up the entirety of the wings set high expectations. ‘A National Theatre budget’ I heard from the row behind. 'Apparently it’s a fantasy novel’ from the couple next to me. ‘I wonder how they’re going to do that scene’ from the row in front. This show had brought together a whole range of guests, and there were at least three whole rows full of teens who I believed had been reading Gaiman’s work at school.

An artistic and slow start to the show felt disappointing. Having not read the novel, I was in the dark about what to expect. Too many words and ideas and complex back and forth was hard to keep up with. But it clearly had an impact. That opening scene was somehow memorable and does make more sense at the end. Slightly more. But the intrigue and lack of answers are what make this play so special.

A man (Trevor Fox) ends up at his childhood home after his dad’s funeral. A mug magically appears in his hands – I’m sure that wasn’t there before? After a conversation with a mysterious woman on a farm where he used to play as a child, the nameless man is transported back to his 12th birthday after the suicide of his family’s lodger. He is now Boy, played by Daniel Cornish (not pictured in the production photography).

Boy lives with sweet but disorganised Dad (also Trevor Fox), and annoying little Sis (Laurie Ogden). It’s after the discovery of the dead body of the lodger in the car he used to kill himself (as graphic as it sounds but subtle enough for younger audience members not to notice), when Boy meets Lettie, played by Millie Hikasa.

Millie has the essence of an eager, energetic and blissful little girl and is successful in playing the role with an air of ancient mystery - is this girl in fact hundreds of years old? And is her family hundreds of years older? Her grandma, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams) claims to have seen the moon being made. And her nervous mum Ginnie Hempstock (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) seems on edge about other worldly goings on. With mind-bending dialogue and inside jokes, the trio of women are captivating and beautiful to watch.

Once the characters and plot are established, we meet Ursula, played by Charlie Brookes. Charlie is exceptional. Terrifying enough to turn away from and soft enough to make you want to teach her how to find true happiness as a human. Most of the stand out magic tricks revolve around Ursula. She inexplicably disappears and reappears on stage continuously bombarding poor Boy after invading his home. Just wait for the menacing door scene.

Each character harvests multiple emotions. Each is nice and nasty, good and bad, honest and secretive, happy and sad, loving and angry, light and dark. Much like every human being experiences. Each except Lettie, that is. Lettie is loveable and kind, adorable and lively, caring and sweet, a hero and a friend. And Boy is so relatable we’re fighting his corner from our seats. Daniel plays the role of Boy exquisitely. We’re rooting for him, but also questioning his thoughts – and at the same time, sympathising with the fact he might have sometimes gotten things wrong.

And then there’s the stage hands. They are a character in themselves. Observing the actors as they move from scene to scene, keeping out of their path as they move around the stage, the choreography of these ensemble members dressed in black must have been tough to learn. They go on to help Boy and guide him through his story. You could theorise that they’re memory fairies, existing only in the mind of the man from the beginning of the show. Or you could say they’re electrons, controlled by Old Mrs Hempstock. Perhaps they’re how Lettie is able to communicate through time and space? Whatever they are, they’re magical and allow you to enjoy the mechanics of the scene changes without taking you out of the performance.

Director Katy Rudd takes the cast into the auditorium too, making use of off-stage spaces to perform mind-boggling choreography and provide a sense of vastness on the farm. Use of light and dark was well played. When lights went out, it really was pitch black allowing for some marvellous and malevolent magic tricks to come to life. Music was used as if it was a Hollywood thriller. Sound pounds and thunders through the audience for ultimate terror. Never have I been scared at the theatre before now. Monsters that filled the stage were breath taking and fight scenes were stunning and spine-tingling.

The choreography and questions around reality and life are resonant of Netflix’s The OA, while Lettie and Boy’s friendship, family life, and hints of other dimensions are very Stranger Things-esque.

While the show was incredible, this opening night was far too hot for audience members. And there was some seemingly not-meant-to-be-heard sound coming from the wings from time to time.

The standing ovation was well-deserved. As the audience left the building, all you could hear was talk of the show. I’ve never left a theatre with that kind of atmosphere before.

I don’t give star ratings in my reviews. I like people to read, see the show, and make up their own mind. But if the only way to convince you to see Ocean at the End of the Lane is with a five-star rating, then here you go.


Ocean at the End of the Lane is at Curve until February 11.


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