14 February 2023
Sometimes it is good to come to a piece of theatre with the very minimum of background knowledge; I have never read any of Neil Gaiman’s work, nor seen adaptations of them in any form, but was aware that the stage version of his book, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, had become hugely successful.
Gaiman describes the story as not being autobiographical, but there are certain influences he admits to and the many themes within the play are of universal experience. As adapted by Joel Horwood, we are told that this is a story where the line between reality and imagination is blurred and the many references to C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ and some of the Pullmanesque qualities offer clues to the influences that helped create the work. Along the way we look at childhood, growing up, friendship, love, inadequacy, death, suicide, nightmares and the security children can find in their imagination which can help them deal with life – something which becomes less easy to achieve in adulthood. It is multi-faceted to say the very least.
Told in retrospect a middle-aged man drifts away from his Father’s funeral and finds himself at the place he played as a child; we are drawn back to the extraordinary events of his early years and his wonderous and terrifying experiences. A 12 year old boy (never named) immerses himself in the worlds of Narnia, Lewis Carol and Tolkein; a device to deal with his personal grief at the loss of his Mother and his shattered family life. His meeting with the Hempstock Family leads to a friendship with feisty Lettie and a battle of good and evil forces.
The imagination of any writer is put to the test in any adaptation and on stage there cannot be reliance on computer graphics; an expert team of technicians pushing the boundaries of what is possible is required – as an example of what can be achieved, this production should be held up high and applauded from the rooftops.
This is an astonishing piece of theatre; gripping, traumatic, engrossing and thrilling. The audience are sitting watching in stunned silence – only breaking to laugh at the witty sequences in the script. You dare not miss a second. The lighting design by the vastly talented Paule Constable is the best lighting I have ever seen and with the tremendous music of Jherek Bischoff and the sound design of Ian Dickinson the audience is treated to a visual and oral feast of awesome magnitude. And more; illusions directed by Jamie Harrison which will make you jump and squirm and puppets by Samuel Wyer which will give you shivers and a warm heart. It is quite a package.
As the bookworm Boy, Keir Ogilvy is exceptional; a performance steeped in energy, innocence and emotion. He is matched by the cheeky, strong-willed Lettie of Millie Hikasa who is an utter delight. Trevor Fox’s Dad is driven by an underlying sadness and inadequacy which is so affecting. Laurie Ogden completely convinces as Sis – the bi-play with her brother is spot-on. Kemi-Bo Jacobs, as Lettie’s Mum, Ginnie, is no nonsense and dynamic and the mystical, eccentric, but wise Old Mrs Hempstock is played to perfection by Finty Williams. Charlie Brooks revels in the vile Ursula; her pleasure in others pain is as creepy as it gets. The cast is completed by the Ensemble who create so much of the magic on stage – rarely have I witnessed a group used so well; as Movement Director, Steven Hoggett has crafted these performers with precision, imagination and skill. The unfussy set design by Fly Davis works like a dream and I take off many hats to the directorial skills of Katy Rudd; it is peerless work.
No theatre production can exist without teamwork – I don’t believe you will witness a better example of it than here.
If I have one disappointment, it is that I didn’t feel as emotionally engaged as I might have wished to be – I felt I wanted to be – but it just didn’t reach my core. Maybe I just don’t react to this genre. However, this is a small aside.
The National Theatre have a justified very high reputation for mounting productions of complexity and scale and this is one of them. This is theatre which makes you gasp and wonder. It is theatre of the highest calibre and this is story-telling in which you become completely immersed. This production shows what theatre can achieve and it gives the audience an experience they will never forget. Simply astonishing.
CAST & CREATIVES
URSULA/SKARTHACH – CHARLIE BROOKS
ALTERNATE BOY – DANIEL CORNISH
DAD – TREVOR FOX
ENSEMBLE – PAOLO GUIDI
LETTIE HEMPSTOCK – MILLIE HIKASA
GINNIE HEMPSTOCK – KEMI-BO JACOBS
ENSEMBLE/LODGER – RONNIE LEE
ENSEMBLE/POLICEWOMAN – AIMEE MCGOLDRICK
SIS – LAURIE OGDEN
BOY – KEIR OGILVY
ENSEMBLE/POLICEMAN – DOMONIC RAMSDEN
OLD MRS HEMPSTOCK -FINTY WILLIAMS
WRITER – NEIL GAIMAN
ADAPTATION – JOEL HORWOOD
DIRECTOR – KATY RUDD
SET DESIGN – FLY DAVIS
COSTUME & PUPPET DESIGN – SAMUEL WYER
MOVEMENT DIRECTOR – STEVEN HOGGETT
COMPOSER – JHEREK BISCHOFF
LIGHTING DESIGN – PAULE CONSTABLE
SOUND DESIGN – IAN DICKINSON
MAGIC & ILLUSIONS DIRECTOR AND DESIGNER – JAMIE HARRISON
PUPPETRY DIRECTOR – FINN CALDWELL
IMAGE – BRINKHOFF-MOEGENBURG