Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – bringing fantasy to life on stage (Grand Opera House until Saturday 25 March)

Good Omens, Coraline and a couple of Doctor Who episodes are my only Neil Gaiman reference points, so I didn’t come to last night’s performance of The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a huge amount of baggage. A feeling of security and quality builds almost as quickly as the Grand Opera House houselights dim.

The first two characters on stage deliver their lines with a clarity and authority that insists that while I have no clue about the who, where, why and when questions that are spinning around my brain like they’re caught up in a cyclone, it’s going to be all right. A cup of tea appears out of thin air in a woman’s hand. The first of many fantastical acts.

The backdrop of the set is fashioned from fine twigs that might hide a multitude of evil in its darkness. A car crashes onto the stage. Some props roll into place without human help. The black-costumed ensemble execute set changes with the poise of shadowy dancers. Then there’s the puppets and the artistry of the swirling mist.

On top of all that, there’s a grieving family at the heart of the plot, and three generations of women at a neighbouring farm whose reference points on what is normal drive the plot, and the otherworldliness. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the plot.

Katy Rudd’s larger-than-life directorial characterisations pull the audience into the mostly unamplified action. The illusions are wonderfully casual, and the puppetry is on an unusually large scale.

Aspects of the choreography are familiar. Movement director Steven Hoggett worked on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and the method of crowd-surfing principal performers around the stage and through the air has been augmented, though those routines all felt overly elongated, delaying rather than punctuating the storytelling.

Joel Horwood’s adaptation of Gaiman’s novel tells a story of a bookish boy and the adventures he has with a girl who lives nearby and is wiser than her years. And sure, doesn’t everyone have a shapeshifting lodger, an unreliable memory and a hole in their heart caused by a moment of traumatic pain and loss?

The dynamic between Keir Ogilvy’s Boy and Millie Hikasa’s Lettie works from the start and both actors create space for their characters’ emotions and motives to develop. The sister (Laurie Ogden) manages the dichotomy of being annoyed by her brother yet knowing that blood is thicker than water. Jasmeen James injects an equal measure of sass and danger into Ursula, the unusual lodger, reminding audiences that understudies are at least the equal of the main cast members.

It’s not often a fantastical tale of imagination can be staged at the scale and complexity that the National Theatre can muster. Even less common for such a show to tour through Northern Ireland. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is clearly not the content that some of last night’s audience expected. But most seemed to be captivated by the astonishing world-building and storytelling.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane continues at the Grand Opera House in Belfast until Saturday 25 March.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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