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The Ocean at the End of the Lane at The Duke of York’s Theatre

What are memories? According to Dictionary.com, memories are a mental impression retained, a recollection. But in fact, they are so much more than that. Every memory you hold in your head is in reality a recollection augmented by imagination. If you don’t believe me then just speak to a family member or friend about an event that occurred in the past, then see how their memory differs from your own. I mention this because memory and imagination are two of the major elements in The Ocean at the End of the Lane which has recently opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Penny Layden (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Siubhan Harrison (Ginnie Hempstock). Credit Manuel Harlan.
Penny Layden (Old Mrs Hempstock) and Siubhan Harrison (Ginnie Hempstock). Credit Manuel Harlan.

After his father’s funeral, a man takes a walk down the lane to revisit the place where his childhood best friend used to live. The place is Hempstock Farm, a special place that he remembers not only for his friend but also because of the duck pond, which in their childish imaginations became an ocean. As he stands and contemplates the pond, he is joined by Old Mrs Hempstock (Penny Layden). As the two of them reminisce, we are transported back with them to when the man was a 12-year-old boy (James Bamford), living with his father (Nicolas Tennant) and sister (Grace Hogg-Robinson). Times are hard and the boy has to share a room with his sister so that his bedroom can be rented out to a lodger. The boy is pretty lonely until one day he meets Ginnie Hempstock (Siubhan Harrison) who introduces him to her mother (Nia Towle) and grandmother. There is something different about the Hempstocks, but the boy likes them all, especially Ginnie, and his life gets really exciting when the two of them play together. However, things never stay the same and things change when the new lodger Ursula Monkton (Laura Rogers) moves in.

Based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood and is unlike anything else you will ever see. Without giving anything away, any production that has a Director – Katy Rudd, Movement Director – Steven Hoggett, Costume and Puppet Designer – Samuel Wyer, a Puppetry Director – Finn Caldwell and a Magic & Illusion Director and Designer – Jamie Harrison, is going to be something out of the ordinary, to put it mildly. The magic begins when you enter the theatre and get your first look at Fly Davis’ beautiful but somehow slightly sinister set. And if you think it looks good when you sit down, then just wait until the show begins and the real magic begins.  Paule Constable’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound design, together with Jherek Bischoff’s wonderful music make the perfect setting for the story itself.

In his programme notes Gaiman talks of people seeing themselves in the story and I have to agree with him. There were certain elements about Boy’s character which really resonated with me, particularly the safety he found in reading fantasy books instead of having to deal with the real world – something I do even to this day. Unfortunately, I never had a friend as marvellous – or maybe as excitingly dangerous – as Ginnie but there was so much I could identify with that I had an instant bond with the writing and could and fell in love with the characters, even when they did bad things.

So, the staging is amazing, the writing superb, what of the acting?  Well, in my humble but honest opinion, if the Olivier’s next year does not include James Bamford as Best Actor, then there is no justice in the world. Bamford was truly superb. Apart from a small scene at the start and end, Boy is on stage throughout the whole performance. The character is very complex, a young lad on the verge of puberty with social anxiety. and possibly other issues,
gets taken on a ride that would blow the minds of many people, and Bamford brings every nuance of the character out and lays him bare for the audience to see. This is a stunning performance that must take so much both mentally and physically from the actor to bring Boy to life in an awe-inspiring fashion. Bamford’s talent is matched by the rest of the cast with Siubhan Harrison, Nicolas Tennant and Laura Rogers just perfect as Ginnie, Dad and Ursula respectively. I also want to mention Grace Hogg-Robinson’s performance as Sis. My goodness is she irritating.  Everything about Sis is there to wind up Boy and Hogg-Robinson really delivers a Violet Elizabeth Bott for the 21st century. Finally, I cannot leave the cast call-outs without mentioning the amazing ensemble (Ruby Ablett, Charlie Cameron, Jeff D’Sangalang, Miranda Heath, Tom Mackley, Carlene Qwaye, Peter Twose and Kieran Garland). This team works so hard during the production delivering everything including… well I can’t really say.

One of the old theatrical clichés when describing a good show is that you should “beg, borrow or steal a ticket!!”. I would say that this is very true, but in thinking about The Ocean at the End of the Lane I would also add some other quotes for potential audience members – “Be Prepared” (Baden-Powel), “Expect the Unexpected” (Wilde) and finally “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.” (Frank-N-Furter).  Recommended for children over 12, this is a show that will hold everyone spellbound and, as you leave the theatre wiping a tear from your eye, you’ll know you’ve seen – or rather experienced – something truly awesome.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Returning to his childhood home, a man finds himself standing beside the duck pond of the old Sussex farmhouse where he used to play. He’s transported to his 12th birthday, spring half term. When his dad was struggling to make ends meet and his friend Lettie claimed it wasn’t a pond, but an ocean… Plunged into a magical world, the children’s survival depends on their ability to reckon with dark, ancient forces that threaten to destroy everything around them.

The 16-strong cast is: Ruby Ablett, James Bamford (Boy), Emma Bown, Charlie Cameron, Jeff D’Sangalang, Kieran Garland, Siubhan Harrison (Ginnie Hempstock), Miranda Heath, Penny Layden (Old Mrs Hempstock), Tom Mackley, Charleen Qwaye, Grace Hogg-Robinson (Sis), Laura Rogers (Ursula), Nicolas Tennant (Dad), Nia Towle (Lettie Hempstock) and Peter Twose.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane introduces audiences to Gaiman’s magical world and the much-loved characters that inhabit it, showcasing the production’s set design by Fly Davis, costume and puppet design by Samuel Wyer. Movement direction is by Steven Hoggett, composition by Jherek Bischoff, lighting design by Paule Constable, sound design by Ian Dickinson, magic and illusions direction and design by Jamie Harrison and puppetry direction by Finn Caldwell. Casting is by Lauren Evans.

Duke of York’s Theatre
St Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, London WC2N 4BG

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