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Theatre review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane proves appearances can be effective

The show's ending may be sloppy, yet sentimental, but it's the production's looks that captivates audiences.

Nia Towle, Penny Layden, Siubhan Harrison and James Bamford in The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane,
Duke of York’s Theatre,
London, until May 14

I don’t question for one moment that Katy Rudd’s production of The Ocean at the End of the Lane has stunning good looks, but I wonder if it’s quite as clever as it seems to think it is.

There’s no question that Fly Davis, the set designer; Samuel Wyer, the costume and puppet designer; and Jamie Harrison, the wonderfully titled magic and illusions director and designer, have together invested the show with a unique dream-like quality. One thinks of Frozen, with its enormous budget and vast stage, and its special effects seem paltry and even primitive compared with what’s on offer here.

The show is based on Neil Gaiman’s novella that flits between childhood nightmares and the disappointments of adulthood and it’s arguably as unstageable as it’s unfilmable. The story is simple enough: Nicolas Tennant plays a man going back to the scene of his first love and the aftermath of his mother’s death, and reality and fantasy become as impossibly blurred as the past and the present.

The show began life at the National Theatre, which takes a rather broad view of what constitutes a children’s show – one thinks of Coram Boy, which focused on a harrowing home for abandoned youngsters – and I would hesitate to recommend this as the big West End Christmas treat for all the family. Certainly, not if the children are younger than 13.

Indeed, there’s a grim scene early on in which a young man is found dead in a car after re-routing the exhaust fumes and there is a sinister aspect to many of the monsters that populate the mind of Tennant’s younger self which are terrifyingly evoked on stage. It may well be I’m expecting too much, but this show doesn’t really have much to say for itself beyond the fact that we occasionally dream as children, and life, when we grow up, can sometimes be a tad disappointing.

This is all less about the quality of the acting than the special effects, but Laura Rogers acquits herself well as a Cruella de Vil-style interloper to the family home, Tennant is on good, solid form in the central role and Nia Towle is a lot of fun as a youngster with attitude.

The ending is sloppy and sentimental by the way, but then again it’s this show’s looks you will remember long after you’ve forgotten its slender story

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