Saturday, December 9

Octopolis – Hampstead Theatre 

An intellectual combat merges into a confused love affair. What sounds like a common trope, lays the ground for an interesting philosophical debate, when a pet octopus called Francis is the axis around which their relationship pivots.

Professor George Gray (Jemma Redgrave), a mildly eccentric, behavioural biologist shares her space with Francis who lives in a purpose-built tank. When anthropology student Harry (Ewan Miller), barges into their space, with permission from the University to carry out his own research, George’s dogma is threatened. As the two argue and bond, and argue some more, they unveil their flaws.

The delivery is clinical and methodical, mirroring the scientific content of the dialogue. Both speak as if presenting their own findings to the audience, momentarily breaking out of scenes to narrate. The cinematic transitions were often effective and cohesive with the style of the piece, but some transitions were a little clunky. The minimal set, with a large, tank-shaped screen, carpet and bench, designed by Anisha Fields, complemented director Ed Madden’s Brechtian style. Jamie Platt’s lighting brought Francis to life, with colour changes to match her fluctuations in mood.

©The Other Richard

Miller conveys an ignorant callousness in his academic pursuit, offset by a goofy demeanour and an intense enthusiasm for his subject. By contrast, George’s fierce, antisocial exterior sees a gentle melting as they gradually get to know each other. Redgrave conveyed a strong contrast between an emotionally cold George at the beginning, and George desperately reaching for an emotional connection at the end, with pleading, searching eyes. She had a particular way of saying simple phrases in a rounded way, which is comically loaded with a deeper meaning as she intentionally holds back from saying more.

The performances became more fluid and convincing as the play progressed which may have been intentional. The two had an interesting dynamic and mastered a peculiar flow between sharp, cerebral conversations and personal, intimate ones. The dialogue had strong comedic potential which the direction didn’t always do justice, and the emotional dynamics could have been built in a way to make the twist more shocking and unexpected.

Marek Horn’s writing gave Francis such a vivid character, with her own emotional journey. The way he crafted the story and placed her at the heart of ontological inquiry, was emotionally moving and is a testament to Horn’s talent. The bold statements, lurch towards objectivity and should have felt jarring, but they suited the character’s beliefs and predispositions, and cultivated a real existential curiosity. 

As we learn more about humans, evolution and animal psychology, Octopolis is relevant in its inquiry, specifically about how humans can live together.

Showing until 28th October

Reviewer: Riana Howarth

Reviewed: 27th September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.