Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Noël Coward Theatre

This superlative production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane returns to the West End at the Noël Coward Theatre

“Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside…people are much more complicated than that”

I saw the original production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane back in 2019 on the night that Boris Johnson got elected (which made for a doubly depressing bus journey home) but its bittersweet beauty lingered long in my head, to the point where I decided that I didn’t want to potentially spoil its memory once the show eventually transferred into the West End in 2021. A couple of years down the line and the show is now returning to the West End on the back of a hugely successful tour of the UK and Ireland and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to now revisit.

I am so glad that I did. Katy Rudd’s production is something truly exceptional and has grown wonderfully from the relative intimacy of the Dorfman to spectacularly fill the Noël Coward Theatre with its theatrical magic. And magic really is the word – from Jamie Harrison’s extraordinary illusions (the doors, the doors!!) to the multitude of surprises with Fly Davis’ set design (how so much is achieved with a single piece of fabric is incredible), I’d forgotten just how transportative this show is, it really does conjure up whole new worlds.

Joel Horwood’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel captures so much of the empathy and profundity of his writing, almost every other line is a poetic insight into the human condition as we slip between a Sussex farmhouse and a spirit world that contains great darkness. There, a 12 year old boy meets the formidable Hempstock women, including the young Lettie, who hold the best chance of defeating the singular evil that makes its way across the boundary between worlds, but at what cost?

One of Rudd’s finest innovations is the use of her ensemble, Steven Hoggett’s movement direction a crucial element here. Clad in black, they become true agents of manipulation – the mere act of scene change becomes a thing of mesmerising beauty, the inventiveness of their physicality suggests all manner of flora and fauna and their puppetry (designed by Samuel Wyer and directed by Finn Caldwell) is truly menacing. A note for Paule Constable’s Olivier Award-winning lighting too, stunning in the way it carves out portals for our imagination to journey so far.

This cast are clearly well versed in their roles but there’s no apparent staleness in their portrayals here. Millie Hikasa captures Lettie’s earnestness with real conviction, allowing Keir Ogilvy’s Boy to be the instrument of quiet chaos that drives the story on. Trevor Fox brings steadiness as his father (and crucially as the older version of Boy, an additional – moving – layer to the narrative), Finty Williams’ Old Mrs Hempstock shimmers with otherworldly knowledge and Charlie Brooks aces the truly disturbing villainry of Ursula. The ocean is waiting…

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is booking at the Noël Coward Theatre until 25th November

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