The best fantasy novels have all the wow moments and spectacle that you long for in a page turner, but you also need an emotional core in order for you to truly invest.
Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and later his Book of Dust series have exactly this. As does The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
This complex book deals with the concept of memory and how the past does not feel too far away. Gaiman elaborates and says it is “about what we forget and what we might carry with us.”
When I read the book, I found myself completely lost in it and I was intrigued to see how this could be adapted for the stage because often a great novel with fantastical elements can often appear clumsy on stage. Not the case here, as I saw for myself last year when I went to The Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End and saw just how well Joel Harwood had adapted this material for the stage with expert direction by Kathy Rudd.
Originally staged at the National, followed by a West End transfer (delayed because of Covid) the play now arrives at the first stop of a UK tour at the Lowry.
The first thing that hits you as you sit down and become immersed in this beautiful exploration of the past and present is the ingenious use of the stage. Doors become portals and horror film tropes and symbols such as plugholes, mouths and wounds become spaces in which your fear of the unknown can simply appear.
Fly Davis has created a stunning set which plays on a child’s memory of what is over the fence or behind an imposing tree, swaying in the wind. This nightmarish world contrasts with dad’s house, which never truly feels like a home now his wife has passed away. Warmth is replaced by burnt toast and a sense of chaos.
Enter Charlie Brooks as Ursula, who wins dad over with the immediate ways in which she wants to be the ‘people pleaser’ within the house. Sis is also won over completely by her, as her love of piano practice, clothes and fast food are all met at once. Keir Oglivy’s knowing boy is not having it and he sees through the newcomer far quicker than any character in films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.
A group of women who are devoted to their farm have all of the answers to his questions. They also have power, strength and fearlessness and the boy needs all of this, as no-one else believes any of his suspicions or conspiracies.
To tell you anymore would ruin this inventive, sometimes scary and always gripping tale of change which explores that churning feel in the pit of your stomach, when it does not feel quite right. Amongst the jump scares and stunning monsters of the mind, the play perfectly captures grief and that awful fear that your lost loved one is being replaced and erased.
Many blockbuster films overdo the CGI and the emotion is all but lost. Here, the balance between magic and genuinely moving moments means that you are sat hunched and anxious one minute and a big hot teary mess the next.
The first half grabs you from the ‘get go and it is so gripping and twisty that the second half does suffer slightly as a result, as there is so much exposition here that ‘show’ becomes ‘tell.’
But there is so much to admire in this enchanting and unusual production from Steven Hoggett’s marvellous movement that stops you in your tracks and resembles a Kate Bush pop video, it really feels as every character is ‘Running up That Hill’ stopped by their fears and insecurities.
On the topic of music, Jherek Bischoff’s imposing music gives the play a film like quality, taking it to epic status, alongside Paule Constable’s lighting design which resembles that feeling when you wake from a dream like state but you are not quite rooted in reality yet. Ian Dickinson’s sound design lifts the nightmarish level to 11 and wrong foots you every time.
There are moments that leave you scratching your head, thinking how did they do that? And this is thanks to Jamie Harrison’s magic and illusions which leave you open mouthed many times.
Keir Ogilvy impresses as the boy on a quest, as he never feels like a young man playing a boy. He taps into a knowing innocence and desire to find the truth in pain. Trevor Fox as Dad has some nightmarish moments and poignant scenes and he handles both remarkably well.
Laurie Ogden perfectly highlights her character’s need to be loved or noticed in the midst of loss. And Charlie Brooks’ Ursula fills that gap with a sense of malevolence and she does this with chilling glee.
Flinty Williams, Millie Hikasa and Kemi-Bo Jacobs are a great trio of women who are determined to kick Ursula into touch and restore stability to this family who have been through so much already. And their chemistry makes everything so believable.
This is a huge production and The Lowry is the perfect stage to start this tour. Instead of scrolling your phone for bargains that you don’t want or need on Boxing Day, I would take a trip to The Ocean at the End of Lane, as it will surprise and dazzle you into submission.