The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Sheffield Lyceum review by Amy Stone
Grim reality is juxtaposed with astonishing fantasy in this National Theatre production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, touring the UK after a critically-acclaimed run at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Based on the award-winning book by Neil Gaiman, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood and directed by Katy Rudd, this production swings between memory and imagination, reality and fantasy, horror and wonder. The result is altogether mind-blowing.
The action begins with a man returning to his childhood home, following the death of his father. A chance encounter takes him back to a traumatic point in his childhood, one year after the death of his mother and shortly after a lodger kills himself in the family car. The boy meets charismatic Lettie, strange things start to befall the pair and together they discover a portal between realities by diving into a pond, or ‘ocean’, as Lettie calls it. Without spoilers, what follows is a stunning exploration of the power of imagination, family trauma, the fight to survive and the magical possibilities that memories can unleash.
Charlie Brooks is brilliantly cast as the Ursula/Skarthach and as much as I do worry she might forever be typecast as the evil usurper, her talent for playing that role is magnificently deployed here. The Hempstock family, particularly Finty Williams as Old Mrs Hempstock, are entirely bewitching. Trevor Fox is incredibly sympathetic as the widowed father trying his best to get by. Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa) and the boy (Keir Ogilvy) complement each other perfectly and their bond is truly compelling.
I am a huge fan of theatre that eschews fussy set in favour of ingenious use of light and props, and this production completely owns that brief. The sound deserves a special mention, too, for adding layers of terrifying depth. The ensemble actors are particularly impressive, inhabiting a kind of nightmare chorus role, a sort of living scenery that pulses through the play from start to finish. They’re also responsible for the puppets – we need to talk about the puppets. Whether it’s an underwater marionette sequence that charms or a great hulking monster that terrifies – the puppetry in this production is masterful. Impressive stage magic features at various points, mostly to gory effect. Big tick from me. Fans of Gaiman’s work will know that his magic and wonder is never delivered without darkness and death – I love him for that, and I love Katy Rudd for bringing this out in such spectacular style.