Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a complicated beast – the story of a man reliving his childhood experiences of a series of bewildering supernatural happenings. This adaptation, by Joel Horwood, sticks pretty closely to the original, picking up the tale when, many years later and now grown to adulthood, the man returns to his old stamping ground to attend a funeral. Whilst there, he takes the opportunity to visit a farm, where he encounters its matriarch, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams). But why does she look exactly the same as he remembers? And how does she know so much about him?
Suddenly, effortlessly, the man is replaced by Boy (Keir Oglivy), the man becomes Dad (Trevor Fox), and Boy relives the tragic events of 1986, when he made his first visit to the farm, meeting Mrs Hempstock’s daughter, Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), and Ginnie’s teenage daughter, Lettie (Millie Hikasa), with whom he instantly has a connection. Lettie is a precocious child, who claims to be skilled in magic. She offers to take Boy on a dangerous journey in search of ‘The Flea’, but warns him that, if she allows him to accompany her, he must never, NEVER let go of her hand…
And of course, he does.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because this is the kind of story that’s entirely open to personal interpretation. You can take the magical rituals and the weird demon-like creatures at face value, or you can choose to interpret them as allegories, the experiences of a troubled boy, a boy moreover who is completely addicted to fantasy fiction and who is haunted by his own childhood imaginings. But what really makes TOatEotL fly is the soaring magnificence of the production. The astonishing set designs by Fly Davis and the vibrant lighting effects by Paule Constable conspire to transform the Festival Theatre into a mysterious labyrinth, utilising every single inch of the large stage.
I also love the way the team of supporting players, all dressed in black, assume the role of stage hands, making the scene transitions an integral part of the story.
Katy Rudd directs with consummate skill, particularly with the arrival of sinister lodger, Ursula (Charlie Brooks), who worms her way into the affections of Dad and Boy’s ‘Sis’ (Laurie Ogden). A sequence featuring a whole series of illuminated doorways through which Ursula disappears and reappears is so brilliantly played that I find myself gasping aloud at each new revelation. Be warned, things get very spooky in the later stages and the production’s suggested thirteen plus recommendation is not just there for show. Impressionable younger viewers could find themselves disturbed by some of the scenes enacted here.
National Theatre productions are renowned for the ingenuity of their stagecraft and this is no exception. It’s triumphantly spectacular. Currently on tour, if it should come to a theatre near you, don’t miss your chance to see it. It’ll blow you away.