Monday, 30 January 2023

REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

The National Theatre’s extraordinary production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane continues its UK tour at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre before heading off to another twenty-seven venues through September. Rarely will you see such a brilliant theatrical stage magic experience in these regional theatres as in this production with its exquisite lighting design, beautifully conceived and executed magical illusions and thrilling performances. They create an ethereal world where reality and mysticism merge in an exploration on our childhood memories and fears and of the heartbreak of death and passing over to the afterworld. 

Neil Gaiman’s book which has been adapted for the stage by Joel Harwood explicitly draws inspiration from the books we see and hear the boy reading in the play. The classic stories of Alice in Wonderland, The Lion and the witch and the wardrobe and Peter Pan all revolve around children on the edge of adolescence who discover an alternative world down a rabbit hole, through a wardrobe or by a flight across London and this book explores the same life transition through its own portal to the alternative world, in this case, the ocean at the end of the lane (a farmyard pond!). Are the alternative world and the family and creatures the boy meets real or just a product of his vivid imagination and swirling hormones? We hear the story from the grown-up boy returning to the area he lived in for a funeral and having his memories jogged by meeting Old Mrs Hempstock, a wonderfully charismatic Finty Williams with strong echoes of her own mother, Dame Judi Dench in her performance. We learn he has returned before, but he has no memories of that until prompted. 

We are transported back to that earlier time and meet the young boy, played by Keir Ogilvy as he unhappily lives with his sister, Laurie Ogden, and his northern father Trevor Fox, who regularly burns the toast, and escapes reality by burying himself in the aforementioned books. When one night he escapes his home through a window he finds himself at the farm of the Hempstock's where Lettie (Millie Hikasa), her mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and the ageless Grandmother live and discovers they have witch’s powers as they save him from a raging father by a “snip-snatch” spell. They take him on a marvellous adventure where he meets and battles with a giant Flea, the hunger birds and Ursula, (Charlie Brooks) from the other world, each magically conjured up on stage. 

Indeed, the direction and design of the illusion by Jamie Harrison and John Bulleid who both worked on the incredible Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End is what sets this apart and using the same techniques of distraction, pinpoint accurate lighting and an ensemble dressed in black they conjure up some spectacular moments to give the production an ethereal magical feel and bring the boy’s memories (or maybe imagination) to life. The sequence where the new lodger, Ursula torments the boy around his home is a beautifully conceived piece of stage magic, simply executed but very effective in amusing and bamboozling the audience while conveying the mystery of unwanted guests.

Director Katy Rudd and movement director Steven Hoggett make sure the action flows slickly from scene to scene with the Ensemble acting as unseen observers moving furniture and props and operating puppets (designed by Samuel Wyer) in delightfully choreographed sequences of balletic movement that create the eerie and mystical world. The stunning precise lighting design by Paule Constable is astonishing picking out faces in the dark, creating the boundaries of rooms and masking the magic and illusion. Added to this is a thrilling underscore from Ian Dickenson which adds to the tension and creates a virtual world that assaults the senses and sweeps the audience along accepting each story twist. 

It is one of the most technically accomplished productions you will see in regional touring theatre and because of its themes of childhood memories and fear of death and passing over is emotionally engaging and thought-provoking at the same time. If there is one piece of theatre you book to see in 2023 this must be it. What’s more, the National Theatre may have a new production to fill the gap left by War Horse and The Curious Incident of the dog in the night in its funding shortfalls.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row J | Price of Ticket: £39

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