THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _30th SEP.

September 26, 2023
images © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Note: TWE reviewed  ‘The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ earlier in its current tour. Given that this is the same touring production, what follows is a revised version of that same review, updated for its visit to the Wolverhampton Grand.

Literalism or allegory. Fantasy agin reality. Identity versus perception.

Vast swathes of the endlessly inventive, wildly imaginative oeuvre of Neil Gaiman pivot around the fusion of the magical and the mundane, and the thin, nebulous separation of the real and the unreal. Whilst many of his celebrated offerings do indeed take giddy, soaring flight into the realms of the marvellous (and even the mythological), Gaiman’s work remains so enduring and endearing in no small way by dint of it so often being grounded, rooted and channelled through the immediate and the relatable.

The impish frustrations, curiosities and naïveté of childhood imagination in Coraline. The innately un-godly, often even unassuming, personas and forms taken by the titular American Gods. The elevation of ordinary trinkets into artefacts of immense power and importance in, say, Chivalry. And, of course, the innate power and strengths of dreams as evinced in The Sandman.

It seems obvious – some may say glib, even – to point out that a celebrated author’s work is partly so successful because of its relatability, and how it often encircles timeless themes that a reader can easily attach themselves to. And yet, when you consider that this trenchant humanity courses so seamlessly and consistently through the bravura imagination and heightened vision of Gaiman’s world-building across so many subjects and scapes, then it only becomes all the more impressive. To paint a lavish, broad canvas of dreamscapes and unfettered originality, yet still thread it through with character, connection and resonance is no mean feat for a single story or book, let alone the countless in Gaiman’s back catalogue.

In what some consider to be amongst his most personal of works – and indeed which the author has himself admitted is peppered with glimpses and reflections from his own childhood – The Ocean at the End of the Lane has arrived on stage as a bold, dynamic and deeply-moving standard bearer for brand Gaiman.

Identity, and indeed self-identity, underpins much of the tale that Ocean tells, as a young boy (Keir Ogilvy) teetering on the edge of maturity toils with what the world around him thinks of him, not least of all his Dad (first cover Joe Rawlinson-Hunt in the performance reviewed at Wolverhampton). Even more fundamentally, there appear to be demons creeping about the periphery of what he thinks of himself, too. In a fractured (if not quite broken) home, one clearly still reeling from recent loss, ideas of parental and familial disconnect, and the widening chasm between childhood and burgeoning adolescence, all swirl.

Enter the fantastical and the fay.

Following another spot of tragedy, the ‘boy’ befriends fellow local oddball, Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa) and family, who, in the confines of their cosy family farm, begin to peel back the quintessential Gaiman layers of magic and mystery. Curious goings-on in the boy’s life, followed by some ill-advised tinkering, sets in motion a series of increasingly dangerous and otherworldly events, not least of all the arrival of a sinister entity who takes on the form of ‘Ursula’, an intrusive new lodger and potential wicked-stepmother-to-be (EastendersCharlie Brooks, in a deliciously vicious and barbed turn).

The sandbox of Gaiman’s penchant for ‘magical realism’ is on full display here, and it’s in no small part down to a unity of fantastic performances, some truly audacious audiovisual and design work, and inspired, pin-sharp direction from Katy Rudd that all coalesces into a sweeping, heightened spectacle that never drowns under the waves of its own ambition. Sure, the magic and whimsy hit a bit of a temporary snag with a couple of technical halts during the performance reviewed, but these weren’t present elsewhere in the tour and are likely little more than a (very) technically demanding show finding its footing in a new venue. 

It’s grandiose stuff. Much akin to the National Theatre’s previous offerings, in particular the likes of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, here sumptuous production values and flourishes of invention delight and enrich the experience, yet never overshadow or distract from it. From jaw-dropping cable and elevation work, industry-leading standards of puppetry and costume work that bandy between the terrifying to the downright transcendent (a fairly late-game act II sequence is especially beguiling), right down to tried-and-true moments of misdirection and theatrical slight of hand (watch as Brooks’ Ursula appears to transport about the stage, much to the vocal astonishment of chunks of the audience), Ocean is an absolute feast for the senses, and feels as lavish and opulent as the rich text from which it is derived.

“…a sweeping, heightened spectacle that never drowns under the waves of its own ambition.

Naturally, all of the spectacle and wizardry in the world is for little if the characters and narrative ring hollow. Joel Horwood’s instinctive, sensitive take on Gaiman’s novel is ethereal and rich with whimsy and delight aplenty, but crucially lets that aforementioned humanity and relatability shine through and breathe. Moments of doom-laden exposition are punctured with cantankerous asides from Finty Williams’ spritely grandmother figure. A set piece of genuine trauma (and borderline abuse) quite literally pushes the fantastical and the demonic temporarily backstage. Even as the potentially apocalyptic and fatalistic crashes in about its antagonists, Ocean takes the time to put its central dynamics and relationships quite literally under the spotlight.

Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Williams each imbue their kindly yet no-nonsense maternal types with a real sense of venerability that never feels formulaic or typical, as essentially the sages of the story. Rawlinson-Hunt put in an admirable, slightly more buoyant performance covering for principle ‘Dad’, Trevor Fox, and if it lacked something of Fox’s gravity, it was nonetheless an affecting turn. Brooks, as mentioned, relishes every moment of malicious bombast and sinister mischief as Ursula, and eats up every moment she’s on stage.

But so much of Ocean’s heart and power rests on Ogilvy and Hikasa’s shoulders. The latter gets arguably the toughest ask of the company, portraying a timeless ‘little girl’ with the knowledge and experience of the ages on a youthful, slightly boisterous mantle, and she’s resplendent and engaging throughout, whilst Ogilvy has to navigate the show’s most emotionally demanding beats, which he does with complete confidence. They are masterstrokes of performances, and the success and impact of the story, as depicted here on stage, is in no small part thanks to their gorgeously-observed and compelling turns.

“…for all of its opulent, rich style and at times almost balletic staging, never does the fantastical dampen or outshine the core humanity and relatability at the heart of this particular Ocean.”

When wading through the ideas, themes and messages of the wonderful world of Gaiman, you’re scarcely anything less than spoiled for choice. In this gorgeous, slick, evocative and frequently astonishing demonstration of stagecraft, the full scope of everything the famed author aims for is beautifully depicted and realised. It is a true spectacle – a dazzling, beautiful flurry of fabric, bracken and even strip neon lighting. Sure, there’s more than a soupçon of eighties, Stranger Things vibing to much of what Davis, Rudd and (lighting designer) Paul Constable, (Sound designer) Ian Dickinson and (magic and illusions designer) Jamie Harrison aim for here, but it all works resoundingly well.

And for all of its opulent, rich style and at times almost balletic staging, never does the fantastical dampen or outshine the core humanity and relatability at the heart of this particular Ocean.

Like many of the myriad marvels sprung from the mind of its renowned creator, The Ocean at the End of the Lane on stage is a remarkable concoction of both the extravagant and the immediate – an unfettered flight of pure fantasy that is comfortably amongst the most visually arresting and dazzling things you can see on stage, whilst at the same time a focused, sincere and moving story of timeless resonance and relatability.

It is, quite simply, a form of pure, bottled, otherworldly theatrical alchemy, and should absolutely be seen to be believed.

A superb roster of fantastic performances ground a beautiful, stirring fable all wrapped in stunning production values and creativity. Transcendent & otherwordly, this is pure theatrical alchemy more than worthy of its heritage and pedigree.

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