Tuesday, April 23

Dear Octopus – National Theatre

This was a tender play about family dynamics which takes its title from a speech in the second act that praises the family unit as a ‘dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape’. On the eve of World War Two, we bear witness to the reunion of the Randolph family, which forces them and their servants to confront the elements of romance, hatred, jealousy and shame that underscore their interactions. I enjoyed the wit that laced through the piece, as is characteristic of Dodie Smith’s writing. This was present in the conversation of the family quarrels, but also in repeated motifs, i.e. the fact that each character is aware of Fenny’s love for Nicholas, which added a comical touch to the action.

A primary issue was the play’s dated narrative; for instance, the reason for Cynthia’s long avoidance of the family home doesn’t quite qualify as scandal in 2024. I found myself gasping for a gear change by the time the interval came around, which was unfortunately not delivered during the second act. With so many references to the burning fireplace, a part of me was hoping for a fatal blaze, or some other catastrophic plot device to amp up the story. Although perhaps that is the 21st Century attention span talking? In dialogue with my expectations for high-stakes, thrilling theatre, as opposed to the mild domesticity of the familial relations pre-WW2?

Photo: Marc Brenner

It truly begs the question, as is necessary when dealing with revivals; why now? I left the auditorium unable to grasp why this was being staged today, other than to cater for the spectators of an older generation. This was not aided by the seemingly aimless over-philosophising by characters: there were a couple of monologues about aging and atheism which led to nothing and, unaccompanied by the usual wit, left me feeling a little bored.

However, watching Dear Octopus, you can expect no less than an exquisite array of costumes and gentle yet effective sound design The foreboding radio voice, which relayed the news of the coming war, ultimately reminded the characters of the tumultuous times that lie ahead and implied the importance of upholding a strong family unit. What’s more, the subdued matriarchal manipulation by Dora was portrayed wonderfully by Lindsay Duncan, not to mention Bessie Carter’s excellent depiction of Fenny’s freneticism and Malcolm Sinclair’s humorous depiction of Charles as the harmless husband. If you are looking for a light-hearted evening of theatre and a dip into a fictional 1930s familial affair, head this way…

Dear Octopus is playing at the National Theatre until 27th March, details for booking can be found here: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/dear-octopus/

Reviewer: Eleanor Hall

Reviewed: 19th February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.