The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Wales Millennium Centre


Until June 3.

Well, I wasn’t expecting that!

Based on the award-winning Neil Gaiman 2013 novel, this is a spectacular piece of theatre, that is charming and frightening in equal measure.

The story, adapted by Joel Horwood, is a sort of coming-of-age tale - and that age is frightening, confusing and risks being a disappointment. Nightmares and imagination merge with so-called reality until it is impossible to tell the difference, if there actually is any.

Okay, so not the most original of ideas but as a stage show this is awesome.

This National Theatre production shows just what can be done in making story-telling vibrant and engaging and worth going to.

The direction and production team could come and blow away a few cobwebs from some of the other types of performance that sadly lack this spark of creativity and genuine enjoyment of going to a show. This director and production team could transform some of the silly snooze-fests churned out by some very well-financed public companies in Wales.

Katy Rudd uses the stage space in a remarkable way aided by masterful lighting techniques and design, soundscapes, and quite terrifying monsters. The cast members are directed with polish, frequently performing as if in an elegantly choreographed dance as much as a drama.

Yes, the story is a simple tale wrapped up in layers of fantasy and mystery. It reminded me of the underlying theme of Billy Elliott. A father struggling to cope with being a dad in a family shaken by loss, and a son, played with vast energy by Keir Ogilvy, struggling to find his own way. So the backdrop isn’t the 1984 miners’ strike, but the painful, angst father-son relationship is the same.

The father at the start and end of the play is, of course, the boy grown up. The role is sympathetically taken by Trevor Fox. He also plays the boy’s father, coping with a young daughter and son after the death of his wife. On hard times they take in a lodger who kills himself having lost other people's money as the show opens. The son is then looked after by what turns out to be a sort of female family of witches (they cannot find a reason for men to be around) and the youngest of the coven, Lettie, played with huge warmth and wit by Millie Hikasa, becomes the boy’s soulmate and saviour. In the meantime, a monster in human form from "the other side" infiltrates the family and they all must be saved.

Much more plot telling will ruin the show as would descriptions of the marvellous shape-shifting monsters and other special effects which are quite marvellous.

Flinty Williams is superb as Old Mrs Hempstock with Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Ginnie, and Laurie Ogden as the annoying little sister. Charlie Brooks excels as the evil but glorious Ursula. It is neat that she teaches the boy's little sister Abba's Money, Money, Money on the piano. Ursula could be seen as the classic evil stepmother who gaslights the father against the son but that is another well-worn trope given a cool twist.

But this is a show that relies on all the team operating puppets, the vast frightening monsters, the lighting and other effects, as much as the excellent named players.

Mike Smith