Theatrical Ride to the Ocean
“She’s not human. She’s a flea!”
There is a packed house and palpable excitement for the first night of the transfer of “The Ocean…” to the Noel Coward Theatre. A wide range of age groups are represented in the audience and some look like repeat viewers.
It would certainly help to have some familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s story before seeing this powerful piece of fantasy theatre. It assumes the viewer will go with the wild flow of invention without question or pausing for thought. There is no time to pause for thought. You’re in for the ride and there’s no getting off. (Although there is an interval.)
A middle-aged Man (Trevor Fox) is drawn to Hempstock farm without quite knowing why. The rest of the action provides a possible answer. The Man was once Boy (Keir Ogilvy) , who had once lived nearby and, on his twelfth birthday, found the family lodger had committed suicide in the Family car. Cue adolescent trauma.
There’s difficult adolescence – losing one’s mother and not getting on with one’s father – and then there’s being threatened by the Giant Shape-shifting, Multi-bodied, Trans-dimensional Flea you unwittingly brought into this world from its own. Not only that, but it can call itself Ursula (Charlie Brooks), turn into a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, seduce your father, boss you around like a mother and control your sister. Not only that, but it wants to bring all its Giant etc Flea mates here to ravage the Earth. Not only that but they all have to travel through your body to get here as if you were some kind of inter-dimensional Channel Tunnel.
Although the text references Boy’s love of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, we’re in much more dangerous territory. (Although Ursula might have a distant cousin in the former.) Boy’s only hope lies in the Hempstock family.
The three generations of Hempstocks have possibly run their farm for a 1000 years. They have a nice line in doomy mutterings of the Things lurk out there – The old old country bleeds – There is a rip in everything – variety, and all three are female because they ‘don’t go in for that sort of thing’. They also constantly undermine Boy’s confidence in anything he believes or takes for granted. But grand daughter Lettie (Millie Hikasa) takes a shine to Boy and offers assistance. However the Family is not as competent as it thinks itself, and since the undermined Boy is now something of a loose cannon himself, things turn out badly.
Mercifully, Boy is saved from an orgy of shame and guilt and remorse that follows by a dose of amnesia delivered by a senior Hempstock. But he must return periodically to relive his story and have another amnesia treatment, his life a painful sequence of cycles.It may be pointless to try to understand the narrative as meaningful in the usual sense. The enduring Ocean itself, where Boy and Lettie share an all too short ecstasy, may be a kind of Heaven but if so it is a cruel one that keeps loved ones in permanently absent presence.
Taken as a whole Ocean offers a bleak view of existence. The audience is immersed in a cocktail of suspense, mystery and horror and left with a powerful sense of loss at the end. One scene completely lacking in physical menace still manages to provoke groans and sobs from the school party rows behind us. Something is working on us.
And so is the cast, crew, and production team who work wonders of timing. The audience gives them a well-deserved standing ovation.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Katy Rudd
Director: Katy Rudd
Set Designer: Fly Davis
Costume and Puppet Designer:
Movement Director: Steven Hoggett
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Composer: Jherek Bischoff
Magic and Illusions Director:
Puppetry Director: Finn Caldwell
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes with an interval
Booking to 25th November 2023
The Noel Coward Theatre
85-88 St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4AP
Telephone: 0844 482 5151
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Brian Clover at the
Noël Coward Theatre on 11th October 2023