The In-Person West End Experience: National Theatre’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane
They wander out from the side in black, heads down, umbrellas against the rain, in a state of mourning that instantly draws us deep into the dark and complicated waters of the National Theatre‘s West End transfer of the multi-layered The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Based on Neil Gaiman’s epic and masterful lyrical novel, this marvelously dark theatrical fantasy, one of the best I’ve seen on stage in years, balances the intense world of nightmares and monsters with the wide-eyed glory of theatre and artistic creation. The creators find meaning in the undercurrent, gifting us with a magical play filled to the brim with a child’s dark and magical sense of wonder bathed in an adult mindset, framed in the complicated mix of care, grief, and disappointment. Ocean… sets out to tell that complex tale of a mother’s death and the pain and mourning that follow, through an adult and child’s eyes. It’s an emotional terrifying metaphorical space, scaring not just those two young kids who were sitting one row in front of me with their mother spending the majority of the show with their hoodies pulled down over their nearly covered eyes and huddled up against one another, but all of us adults pretending to have a firm grasp on reality and logic. The play mystifies and engages, opening up our creative hearts and minds as scary monsters fly across the stage, while people seem to replicate themselves before our eyes behind closed doors. The creators have given life to a mystifying story, gracing us with its beauty and connection, while never shying away from its complicated calling card or its darker interior themes.
Adapted by Joel Horwood (Globe’s The Little Match Girl) and nominated for numerous awards so far this season, Ocean… asks its awe-struck audience to visualize a duck pond as an ocean filled with magic and a world of complex understanding. Stitch and sewn together with the utmost honoring of the text, Katy Rudd (Old Vic’s Camp Siegfried) expertly directs this transfer with a clear grasp of a child’s vivid imagination and an adult’s pain, creating landscapes that are both enchanting and scary, with multiple windows and doors giving visuals that astonish and add to the overall manipulation of the mind’s eye. It’s highly engaging, daring us all to be as brave and smart as those young souls at the heart of this spectacular play. The Duke of York‘s stage is transformed, practically mooing with warm milk through your heart, where a pool of white light gives safety and hungry birds transform the air into a place where nightmares can reside and attack. This is all thanks to the masterful artistic team that includes set designer Fly Davis (West End/Broadway’s Caroline, or Change); costume and puppet designer Samuel Wyer (NT’s The Elephantom); movement director Steven Hoggett (West End/Broadway’s Curious Incident…); lighting designer Paule Constable (NT’s Follies); and sound designer Ian Dickinson (West End/Broadway’s Angels in America) for Autograph. There is true magic in their hearts and minds, creating theatrical stage work at its best. And they aren’t even witches.
“Will anything be like it was before?” Deep in this tale of grief and reflection, a middle aged man, played solidly by Nicolas Tennant (RSC’s Hamlet) finds his way back to a place and a shoreline that is drenched in memories of young love and the sadness of a mother’s death. As the ripples of waves from the past engulf the stage, he finds himself transported, rediscovering the younger version of himself, played beautifully by the talented James Bamford (West End’s Harry Potter…), who is desperately in need for his dad, also portrayed by Tennant, to stop burning the toast and see how scared he is of the future before him. The young boy, and his younger sister, deliciously portrayed by the wonderful Grace Hogg-Robinson (BBC Arts’ Sitting) have a need for connection and engagement even as they fight like cats and dogs, and his father is too fraught to know what to do with that energy. Instead, squabbles take over the kitchen table, as the tale of a seductive witch lodge itself inside the troubled familial house of three. Luckily for the boy, there is another family of three with magical proportions and a more maternal air situated just down the lane to give him the solid care he needs, and a few tricks of the trade that might just save him and his family from internal other-worldly destruction.
“Can you be brave” when the pretend world becomes real and dangerous? A great question, as the story of the witch unfolds almost effortlessly, with Laura Rogers (West End’s Pressure) embodying the invading presence taking on a chillingly authentic stance. She manipulates, easily, all but the boy, transforming the home into a trap and a prison, one he knows he must escape from. Death and fear are weaved in and around the tale, most likely waking the demons up from the depths of their watery unconsciousness. Fortunately, they are no match for the young girl, Lettie, deliciously portrayed by stage-newcomer Nia Towle (“Persuasion“), who, along with her strong-willed mother and astounding grandmother, played fascinatingly by Siubhan Harrison (West End/NT’s Home, I’m Darling) and the captivating Penny Layden (NT’s Paradise), have some secrets and powers that will push the demons back; talents that are unknown to us logical thinkers, where a duck pond can become a deep and mysterious ocean, and two young kids can be brave against terrifying winged sorcery.
“There’s things that lurk out there,” we, and he are warned, and boy, do they ever. The monsters that invade from a place of grief and sadness are a work of fearful wonderment, brought forth by the magic and illusions director and designer Jamie Harrison (UK tour of Bednobs and Broomsticks) alongside the wizardry of puppetry director Finn Caldwell, (West End/Broadway’s Angels in America). The frightening creatures rain terror over the two young fighters, creating visuals that creep inside our mind, and under the edges of those two neighboring boys’ hoodies one row up. It truly is theatrical magic, showcasing, once again, just how magnificent the National Theatre can be, especially with a play steeped in adult and child-connecting themes. Those two young boys sitting in front of me are living proof of this majestry. They were completely enthralled and terrified, excited and thrilled with their survival once the curtain came down on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The exciting energy of the play washed over them, as it did with all of us adults in the audience, making us feel alive again and connected to our youthful emotional hearts and creative minds. It’s deliciously devious and scary, finding salvation and bravery in a bereaved family dynamic. We connect to that complication as deeply and honestly as the ocean is wide, as we watch them find their way forward through some difficult waters into the complex world of adulthood.