Mary Woodward Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)


A middle-aged man has come back to a place he lived in as a boy.  He meets someone who seems familiar, and he starts to remember, vaguely, the friend he met by the duckpond – Lettie, that was it: Lettie Hemstock – but she didn’t call it a duckpond, did she?  What was it now?  Ah yes – she called it the ocean… 

Memories slowly start to surface from the depths where they had been hidden for years, and The Boy is transported back to his twelfth birthday, the day he met Lettie Hemstock, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother, Old Mrs Hemstock.  Things aren’t good at home: his mum died a year ago, his sister is a nightmare with whom he has to share a bedroom, and his dad’s behaving very oddly, becoming a terrifying autocrat in a split second – and now the lodger has disappeared.  Slowly he remembers the whole terrifying tale and how he owes his life to the three Hemstocks.

Without giving the plot away, it’s hard to say too much: suffice it to say that a Creature From Another Dimension [CFAD for short] is trying to break through into this world and the Hemstocks have powers which enable them to prevent this – if they can get there in time.  Lettie is young and wants to do battle on her own – but also to take The Boy with her.  It’s going to be easy – as long as he doesn’t let go of her hand: but of course he does, and the CFAD finds its way into the world through him.  The Boy finds himself in a nightmare where, through him, it has come into his home, and taken human form – Ursula Monkton, whom The Boy’s father introduces as their new housekeeper, who’d going to make everything all right again.  Sis thinks she’s got a new Best Friend; Father obviously thinks she’s wonderful, and only The Boy knows what’s really in his home, tormenting him and preventing him from going to meet Lettie at her house.

The inventiveness of the narrative is of course unparalleled.  Neil Gaiman has a fascination with the darker side of life, and knows how to portray it to maximum effect: the National Theatre have done a superb job of making concrete what in his writing he largely leaves to one’s imagination.  The ‘flea’/ CFAD and the Hunger Birds are simply magnificent creations, and the way they interact with The Boy and Lettie are a superbly choreographed and mind-boggling demonstration of trust between all the actors on stage.

Gaiman’s ghastlily gruesome imagination transfers chillingly to the stage, and it’s not all in the ‘fantasy’ part of the narrative [the hand rising up from the bath….].  The father-son relationship is equally horrifyingly portrayed – especially when everything The Boy says, as he tries to make his father realise Ursula’s evil nature, can so easily seem to be the rantings of an angry and confused adolescent whose mum died recently and who can’t accept the introduction of a new girlfriend into the house.  Ursula appears merely to be trying to make friends with the two children: it’s only when she and The Boy are alone together that her true nature is revealed.

A lot of deep thought is woven into the narrative, but without sufficient time fully to absorb it: the nature of memory and stories; of true identity as opposed to who or what you think someone is; of what really is, rather than what you think you see; of how you are seen by others is not what you think they think of you; and the premise on which this narrative is built – that what you think you see in this world can be the cover behind which hide all manner of things you really don’t want to know about.

There’s a striking contrast between the homely atmosphere around the Hemstocks’ kitchen table, the ostensibly equally homely Boy’s household, and the horrors of the hidden world.  The first is orderly, well-lit, calm and comforting; the second appears so on the surface but contains the stuff of nightmares; the third is that nightmare made visible – chaotic and dangerous, with flashing lights, loud noises, and a set which breaks up, advances, retreats and ultimately swallows people.

The cast, set, effects and production are all outstanding.  Keir Ogilvy’s Boy and Millie Hikasa’s Lettie, Trevor Fox’s Dad, Laurie Ogden’s Sis and Charlie Brooks’ Ursula, and Kemi-Bo Jacobs Ginnie and Finty Williams’ Old Mrs Hemstock are all excellent, while the ensemble players Ronnie Lee, Paolo Guidi, Aimee McGoldrick and Domonic Ramsden are breathtakingly good.  Were there really only four of them? – the drama would be pointless and impossible without them. Words fail me when I try to describe just how excellent they are – at first seeming to be simple stage hands, who nonetheless recoil in horror from Dad when they sense the beginning of one of his rages, they play an ever-increasing part in the action, becoming the obstacles over, under, and through which The Boy and Lettie have to make their way; the producers of the baits with which the Hunger Birds are lured into this world; the waves of the ocean and the supporters both of the actors and their diminutive counterparts in their underwater journey; and bringing to terrifying life the various monsters that are the nightmare element in this gripping tale.  

This is another superb production from the National Theatre, with highly inventive effects and a very talented cast.  Somehow, though, it failed to hold me totally enthralled and I couldn’t give it that fifth star.  There were moments of sheer terror and others of great beauty and joy, as well as of great sadness – just like life, really.  

My companion was totally gripped by, and really appreciative of the whole show, and the rest of the audience applauded mightily at the final curtain.  

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is only here for a week, part of an extensive tour which doesn’t reach Glasgow till the autumn – when I shall go and see it again and hope to lose myself in it completely.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 22nd April for tickets go to:


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