Keir Ogilvy as the Boy, Millie Hikasa as Lettie and Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Ginnie with the hunger birds. Pictures: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The Ocean at the end of the Lane

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Every blue moon or so along comes a production that just blows you away, demanding that rare accolade of being unmissable and this wonderful piece of theatre is one of that elite band.

Even if fantasy is not for you and you thought Lord of the Rings was a load of old tosh, you can still marvel at a level of stagecraft and theatre magic that at times just takes your breath away - and that is without even mentioning the first class acting or the assorted shape shifting phantom beasts that are the stuff of nightmares.

We open with the main protagonist returning to his old hometown for a funeral and taking time to visit the duck pond on the Hempstock farm where he once played with best friend Lettie, who called the pond her ocean - the place, she told him, where possibilities begin.

The farm, incidentally, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and you suspect it went back to the dawn of time, which always adds that shiver of mystery, heightened when Old Mrs Hempstock appears, old crone like, from out of the darkness.

And with her comes the cloak of memory as the visitor is transported back to his time as a boy, on his twelfth birthday, the day the lodger committing suicide in his father’s car.

The boy’s mother had died a year ago, leaving the family in reduced circumstances, hence the need for a lodger.

Keir Ogilvy is a convincing 12 year-old lost and bewildered and taken by Lettie, played by Millie Hikasa, to the farm, away from the trauma and police investigation.

There he meets Ginnie Hempstock, Lettie’s mum, and Old Mrs Hempstock, her gran, and we get the first inkling that this is not exactly a normal family, that perhaps they have knowledge and out of world skills that a Tolkien or a C. S. Lewis might have appreciated.  

old hemstock and dad

Finty Williams as Old Mrs Hempstock and Trevor Fox as Dad

Ginnie, played by Kemi-Bo Jacobs, is almost normal, which is very much a relative term in that family, and wary of the forces that can be unleashed by careless meddling, while Finty Williams as the old gran is more pragmatic, a bastion against the forces of . . . who knows what, but you do know you wouldn’t want to meet them.

The first hint something might be afoot comes with a fish. The lodger died having lost a fortune of other people’s money and suddenly a fish is caught from the pond with a 50p forced in its mouth. The lodger lost money and money is popping up in unlikely places – like the boy’s mouth the next morning, which is a bit of a shock for him.

So, Lettie decides it’s a spirit trying to enter their world and needs stopping, so off our pair go, battling a stage filling creature with the boy, forgetting his instructions, letting go of Lettie’s protective hand, ending up infected by a worm, but not just any worm . . .

He manages to pull the worm out and throw it away, or so he thinks. But is it really thrown away? As a clue the next day the boy’s widowed father announces they have a new lodger, Ursula Monkton, who will be looking after them - work a bit fast for a letting agent you might think . . ..

Ursula, played with a mix of charm and malice, is vivacious, oh so helpful, and quite vicious if crossed, which is sort of what you would expect from an evil spirit in human form, the form in this case being former EastEnder Charlie Brooks.

She claims she want everyone to be happy, but it’s on her terms and you suspect 666 to be tattooed behind both ears, under her arms, inner thighs . . . she is not a nice person . . . or thing or whatever.  

She controls everyone, becoming best, and only friend to the boy’s sister, played by Laurie Ogden, and somewaht more than just good friend to his usually mild mannered father, played by Trever Fox, who is manipulated into near drowning his son as punishment for disobeying Ursula.

She is destroying the family and who knows where her power will end so Lettie and the boy decide to force her back into the spirit world, which involves loads of witchy stuff including mandrake root, that old-school hallucinogenic which has always been a folklore favourite, as well as fairy rings and hunger birds which are . . . well, they are big, and black have tatty wings and eat anything they meet, so best avoided.

The final battle has a moment of noble sacrifice, victory tinged with sadness, yet even that is another version of reality as we end with the Old Mrs Hempstock sitting alone and opening a new mystery.

I must admit to following the gist of the plot, but to understand it fully I suspect you need to be tending a bubbling caldron, with a raven on a perch in the background and have Gandalf on speed dial.

sister, dad and ursula

Laurie Ogden as Sis, Charlie Brooks as Ursula and Trevor Fox as Dad.

Picture: Pamela Raith

But the gist is all you need in this battle of good against evil and it is all great fun, unless you are of a nervous disposition or have a heart condition of course. The production manages to chuck in some heart stopping moments, fear factor leaping into Spinal Tapish 11 range at times, giving a new meaning to family show. Brilliant, shivers down the spine stuff and all done without CGI, video or computer wizardry.

Fly Davis’s set is a masterpiece of sophisticated simplicity, we even have a roll on car with a dead lodger at the wheel. The boy’s home is a wheel on table and cooker, complete with burning toast – dad’s breakfast specialty - or two beds or a bathroom all rolled on without a break in dialogue or action.

The Hemstock’s kitchen has a big table, a cooking range and a drop-down collection of oil lamps from the flies. All roll on roll off by stage hands who double as ghouls and monsters and operate the stage filling creature of nightmares, a giant puppet directed by Finn Caldwell and designed by Samuel Wyre, who was also responsible for costumes.

The stage is fringed by gothic vines and dark scrambling plants, more like a set for the enchanted castle in a ballet of Sleeping Beauty, which gives a dark and ominous feel from the off, and ballet is what comes to mind in the battles with the creatures from the spirit world.

Steven Hoggett is the movement director but adding choreographer would not look out of place with the balletic interactions he has created, and the dramatic battles between good and evil are enhanced by a brilliant, dramatic lighting plot from Paule Constable – who could have thought light could be made that scary.

There is also magic, designed and directed by Jamie Harrison, with hands appearing from nowhere, bodies disappearing, and a moment when door after door appeared and no matter where the boy looked or tried to escape, Ursula was there, Ursula Major, Minor and every Ursula inbetween. You can guess how it was done but that didn’t make it any the less intriguing or impressive.

And underlying it all was Jherek Bischoff’s haunting and disturbing music, at times with chest thumping fearful bass, at times a distant fearful echo of a whisper.

I must admit I don’t know the Neil Gaiman novel, adapted by Joel Horwood, so with nothing to go on this was a production that had to stand on its own and it managed that quite splendidly. This is the embodiment of the magic of theatre at its very best with not a flaw or weakness in sight. Theatre reaching these heights does not come around that often, so catch it while you can.

Directed by Katy Rudd the ocean will be at the end of the Alex to 27-05-23.

Roger Clarke


The ocean will be washing up in the Midlands again at Wolverhampton Grand, 26-30 September.

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