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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

“Where does imagination stop, and memory begin?” asks the magical matriarch of the mysterious Hempstock family near the start of Neil Gaiman’s supernatural story – brought strikingly to the stage in this touring National Theatre production.

Imagination, memory, perception and what we believe to be reality all swirl together in the disquieting tale which suggests the barriers between them are not quite as fixed and impenetrable as we may assume.

Sensitive, bookish Boy (Keir Ogilvy) lives with his little sister (Laurie Ogden) and harassed widower dad (Trevor Fox) who is trying to make ends meet by working all hours and taking in lodgers with what could be described as a spectacular lack of success.

It’s down to one lodger that Boy first meets the wise young Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa) and finds himself in the kitchen of the ancient neighbouring farm where she lives with her mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and seer-like grandmother ‘Old Mrs Hempstock’ (Finty Williams).

The farm’s duckpond is Lettie’s titular ‘ocean’ – both a deep pool of knowledge and a safe harbour, and it soon becomes evident the trio are no ordinary family and their farm is no ordinary holding.

An adventure on its periphery goes awry and allows Skarthach – a giant ‘flea’ fearsomely brought to life, Shelob-like, in a huge jumble of probing legs and ephemeral fronds – to cross the boundaries between worlds using Boy as a conduit and, taking human form as a new lodger Ursula (Charlie Brooks, smiling and creepily sinister) worms her way (literally) into his family home.

While Boy may feel the fear and the pressing powerlessness of childhood, he discovers there is a way to send her back – but at what price? And how will it be remembered?

Above: Sis (Laurie Ogden), Ursula (Charlie Brooks) and Dad (Trevor Fox). Photo by Pamela Raith. Top: Boy (Keir Ogilvy) and Lettie (Millie Hikasa). Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The Ocean at the End of the Lane shares some the same production team which created both War Horse and particularly The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and you can see the imprint of both in the overall look of the production and the physical movement which sees a shadowy ensemble ebb and flow around characters who embark on lifted flights of fancy.

At its heart Gaiman’s story – adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood – is an intimate one which in some ways demands the emotional connection of a smaller space than the cavernous Empire. And yet it is also sweeping in its fantastical scope and ambition which works well on a stage as large as the Lime Street landmark’s – assisted by vibrant direction from Katy Rudd and some imaginative and arresting visuals.

It’s a fantastic collaborative triumph between Fly Davis’s set, Paule Constable’s spectacular lighting design, Ian Dickinson’s sound, and some clever misdirection and sleight-of-hand by stage illusions royalty Jamie Harrison.

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