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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is incredible and scary as hell

What a triumph for the National Theatre to make a riveting nightmare out of this long-anticipated transfer.

Two years after The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s first staging, Neil Gaiman’s dark fairy-tale has returned, this time to the West End. 

The story from Gaiman’s award-winning book is about the escape a lonely child finds in fantasy worlds. In one of many extraordinary moments during Katy Rudd’s haunting production, the stage becomes a playground for the imagination. Anything can come to life; anything can be transformed. It is also occasionally unbearably chilling and poignant.

Leading the production, James Bamford as the Boy is commanding – at times heart-rending – as the distressed, gawky 12-year-old hero who is plunged into a confrontation with a wicked witch in his own home, screeching monsters and flapping creatures. Nia Towle is dynamic as Lettie, the farm girl who becomes his guiding friend. The magical realism is a pure spectacle. 

Nia Towle (Lettie Hempstock) and James Bamford (the Boy) / Manuel Harlan

Elsewhere, Nicolas Tennant as the Dad movingly portrays the messily human emotions of a family bereavement and subsequent trauma. The 16-strong cast work effortlessly to realise a slick and polished ensemble performance. Extraordinary moments abound. 

How do you stage unfurling forests, tunnels, witches, snapping demons, and action-packed drama so effortlessly? With the help of Joel Horwood’s nimble adaptation, a terrific team has found the way.  

Every small thing is beautiful; the creative team are chef’s kiss. Ian Dixon’s sound design turns innocent noises into explosions. In a triumph of theatricality, movement director Steven Hoggett, composer Jherek Bischoff and lighting designer Paule Constable pull out all the stops to ensure that the production soars; the dreamlike storytelling becomes the arena that the Boy makes his own. All this ensures that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a triumphant theatre event. 

The disparate and menacing electric 80s music by composer Jherek Bischoff deftly underscores the journey of a man returning to his childhood home, and is a work of art. Taken as a suite of music on its own merits, The Ocean at the End of the Lane‘s official soundtrack flows rather seamlessly—no small achievement.  Perhaps the most deft and frightening as hell touch is the use of synths to mimic a vaguely inhuman howling. 

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sometimes a show comes along that is so inventive that you just can’t help but be in awe of everyone involved. Separating the very good from the excellent moments in Rudd’s dreamlike production is almost impossible. Fly Davis’s set has benches, doorways and props popping amongst a beautiful series of tunnels and abstract backdrops.

I should also say that I am delighted that west end theatre is waking up to the notion that it should take advantage of the great blossoming of children’s literature in the last few years – and by doing so luring in a new generation of theatre-goers.

If you have the chance, make sure you get along to the show because it is visually thrilling, moving and extremely special.  

The Ocean at the End of the Lane runs at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, until 14 May 2022.