Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane at Sunderland Empire - storytelling at its finest
Take an intriguing story, mix it with fantastical staging, add a dash of Stranger Things, and you have the recipe for a magical night at the theatre.
Granted, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t the simplest of titles, but much like National Theatre stablemate The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this is far from a simple story; it’s a rich and complex play that stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Having not read Neil Gaiman’s novel, upon which the play is based, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the production – but this is a show where you can expect the unexpected, where the mundane meets magic and a duck pond becomes a portal to another world.
A story filled with memories, magic and time travel, we follow our plucky protagonist, known simply as Boy, played by Keir Ogilvy, who returns to his Sussex neighbourhood as the hands of time tick by, somehow always drawn back to the humble Hempstock farm, with its table filled with hearty foods and jugs of daffodils.
His childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, played with real sass by Millie Hikasa, her mother (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and the curious Old Mrs Hempstock (Emma-Jane Goodwin) become a real source of matriarchal comfort as he deals with the grief of losing his mother.
Not only do they fill a void in his young life, they introduce him to another life – one that lies beyond earth.
It would be a spoiler to go into too much detail about what lurks beneath the surface of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but the monsters he meets are grotesquely beautiful, dark and intoxicating in equal measure.
It’s testament to the skill of the staging that the Empire stage looks deeper than it ever has before as we become immersed between the two worlds.
Boy unwittingly becomes a key to monster Skarthach entering his home as chilling Stepford Wife Ursula and former Eastenders actor Charlie Brooks is mesmerising as the shapeshifter. What an utterly brilliant baddie.
Scenes at his family home, with the excellent Trevor Fox as Dad, are so cleverly done it will have you scratching your head as to how Ursula jumps from doorway to doorway, your eyes darting about the stage.
The home is broken after the loss of mum – dad burns the toast, brother and sister fight like cat and dog – but it’s still a home that’s filled with love, which ultimately wins.
Much like the time travelling arc of this tale, there’s references to the childhood books Boy loses himself in as he battles with grief, venturing down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland and stepping through the wardrobe of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. For an 80s child like me, there’s also reminiscent hints of Bowie’s Labrynth.
There is, of course, magic in the huge-scale monsters, its fluid tendrils consuming the stage, but there’s also a magic in the simple relationships between the characters, reminding you that you never really lose anyone, even after death. They stay with you.
This is a production that’s as deep as the ocean. Dive in at its Empire run while you can.