By Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath until 18 March
The morning after the National Theatre’s highly-acclaimed stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane washed up at the Theatre Royal Bath, only one thought dominated my consciousness: wow, what happened on stage last night?
There was no point in asking the people I was with for their thoughts on it – as the drama’s key character Old Mrs Hempstock (you’ll hear more about her later) said, at one point: “Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not.” And in the case of this production, what you think might be the most memorable highlights of your evening in the company of Gaiman’s imagination turned into fantastical theatrical flesh might well turn out not to be the apogees you thought they’d be, today… especially if your dreams had been interrupted by nightmares involving shape-shifting monsters, parasitic worms and evil, supernatural ‘fleas’.
The tortuous tale begins with a middle-aged man returning to his childhood home for his father’s funeral. While in the ‘hood, he revisits a pond near an ancient farmhouse where he used to play… and we’re swiftly transported back to the man’s 12th birthday, a year after his mother had died, back in the days when new best friend Lettie claimed that the pond wasn’t a pond, but an ocean of possibility, for better or worse. Ominous? Oh, yes indeed; in what could be likened to a far darker remix of Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, it turns out that the youngsters’ survival depended on their ability to challenge the ancient forces that threatened to destroy everything around them – and the challenges that faced them were about as threatening, destructive and downright terrifying as the very worst challenges can get.
As we’d expect from a National Theatre production directed by Katy Rudd (whose previous credits include Associate Director of both the NT’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Pinocchio) and designed by Vox Motus co-Artistic Director Jamie Harrison, magic realism is pushed to the fore in this high-concept, thoroughly modern theatrical extravaganza laden with supranormal effects, exhilarating jump-scares a-plenty and bewitching razzle-dazzle. Meanwhile, Sound Designer Ian Dickinson’s bracing compositions are profound in their impact, and Movement Director Steven Hoggett’s command of choreography bring a constant, almost hypnotic ebb and flow to proceedings, adding further layers of ethereal brio that at times verges on Rambert territory. Sensory overload? At times, we’re almost drowned in it – but goodness, what a way to go.
Of the exceptionally tight-knit ensemble, Keir Ogilvy as gentle/brave Boy, Finty Williams’ not-quite-as-wacky-as-she-seems Old Mrs Hempstock (a white witch dressed in steampunk sheep’s clothing) and Millie Hikasa’s feisty, strong-willed Lettie hold their roles with verve and complex credibility from start to finish, combining forces to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that they’re forced to face. As for Charlie Brooks as malevolent queen flea (long story) Ursula – crikey! Seguing from amiable new lodger at Boy’s family home to seductive/super-crazy supernatural psychopath on the turn of a pink high heel, Brooks has channeled her experience as EastEnders’ vile villainess Janine, taken a sadism masterclass from Snow White’s Wicked Queen and added lashings of pernicious personality to both, resulting in the very best characterisation of the very worst character to grace (or otherwise) a stage – truly terrifying, yet tantalisingly terrific.
Overall, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an extraordinary production on multiple levels, from impressively slick technical values to deep emotional impact. Some people will summarise the experience as magical, or enchanting, or charming; others may find it harrowing, or menacing, or sinister. My advice? Make your mind up the morning after, when your imagination has had time to process what happened on stage, last night – if, that is, you were brave enough to turn the light off…