Words by Jessica Goodman / Production pics by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
“If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…” Not for the faint of heart, the National Theatre brings its production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane to The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham this week.
An adaptation of the book by best-selling author Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story of memory, fantasy, magic, and friendship. Returning to his childhood home for a funeral, a man finds himself confronted with long-forgotten memories of his past and the sinister forces that once threatened to destroy everything.
Transported back to 1983, we witness how the suicide of a lodger who lived with his family kick-starts a series of events that bring forth an evil entity from another reality. With warnings for moments that some may find frightening and references to death, it’s an intense watch, bringing to life moments of profound fear and, contrastingly, spontaneous joy.
Katy Rudd’s production is a visual spectacle of the highest order. Against a backdrop of tangled thorns (designed by Fly Davis) it feels like absolutely anything is possible. Doors multiply and vanish. Monsters shapeshift and grow. People become puppets. Air becomes water. A circle of light becomes the only safe haven against a threat there doesn’t seem to be any sure-fire way to identify.
Special effects are brought to life by an ensemble dressed all in black, making magic happen before your eyes as long as you can imagine it. Moments of stark horror and freewheeling delight could be mirror images, constructed and portrayed with oh-so-similar graceful choreography.
Perhaps the play’s most spellbinding (see also: spine-chilling) scene shows our protagonist desperately trying to escape from the fear there could be (and, in this case, actually is) a monster behind every and/or any closed door.
This might be a tale of monsters, both literal and metaphorical, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at its best when it’s at its most uncomplicated. The growing friendship between our 12-year-old protagonist (Kier Oglivy) and his otherworldly best friend, Lettie (Millie Hikasa), is enchantingly pure, their dynamic the centrepiece around which the other characters orbit.
As both the protagonist in the present day and his father in the past, Trevor Fox plays the role of a man who’s both trying to do best by the ones he loves and battling the shadows of his past that drive him to destroy the very same.
From defender to danger and back again (at one point, even in the same scene), his portrayal of these complicated characters has a simplicity that ranges from endearingly to harrowingly human.
At its core, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a nightmare-fuelled adventure in what it is to be human. We witness the profound joy of friendship, the harrowing physical pain that comes with loss, and so many degrees in-between.
It’s a play that will no doubt reward repeat viewings, offering new ways of viewing the world it inhabits every time. Did the story we see play out actually happen, or are we watching imagination being used as a way to process loneliness and trauma?
Does the magical memory snip-and-stich actually work, or is it a pretence for forgetting what we can’t stand to remember?
Much like we’re told “you don’t pass or fail at being a person, love,” in the final act, there’s no one-explanation-fits-all way to read this play. The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be whatever you choose to make of it. Open to your interpretation, it’s all about the experience.
Whether the events we witness are made up or not doesn’t really matter. What we’re given is both a thrilling edge-of-your-seat adventure and a celebration of imagination.
Ocean at the End of the Lane runs at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until 27 May. For more information and link to online ticket sales, visit www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham
For more from The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham