Home Estate Planning Dear Octopus review, National Theatre: Dated play is tough but touching

Dear Octopus review, National Theatre: Dated play is tough but touching

0 comment

Dear Octopus at the National Theatre, review and star rating: ★★★

Here’s the thing: if the National Theatre is to be truly diverse, it must dedicate a good chunk of its programming to the older middle class white people who have for so long been synonymous with the building’s luvvie reputation.

The question is, where does classic become stuffy? The answer is somewhere uncomfortably close to Dear Octopus – but not quite.

A comedy of manners by the British writer Dodie Smith that premiered in the West End in 1938, Smith’s piece is an often tough, sometimes touching rumination on ageing, family dynamics, and love and loss set just before the outbreak of the Second World War. There is something lovely about how it is drenched in nostalgia, Smith’s story something like a living portrait of grief and loss before it has happened. But then again, it is bloody long.

We are in a grand middle class home somewhere in England. Charles and Dora Randolph are about to celebrate their golden wedding, and four generations of the family have assembled, including fun aunt Belle, lush Cynthia who is embarrassed about her foreign affair and singleton Fenny, who flirts with Nicholas Randolph, Dora’s youngest child, in a role originally realised for the stage by John Gielgud.

Almost nothing happens, almost all of the time, and the first act is an hour-and-a-half. At first it is hard-going, sometimes feeling impenetrable, and a handful of seats were empty by act two. But by the middle of the second part you begin to feel you’re witnessing something simmering and profound.

Smith’s play feels deeply dated, the overlong first act stuffed with hammy, sometimes flat interpersonal family banter often revolving around matriarch Dora fussing about with some furniture or person in the house. The comedy is uneven, occasionally funny but mostly twee and often overplayed, even if the cast including Bessie Carter and Lindsay Duncan totally get the brief.

But there’s an audaciousness about its very ordinariness – nothing is ever happening, except a bit of inter-familial squabbling, flirtation and anxiety projecting. The expansiveness of the set and direction makes the piece, with all its great baggy parts, feel almost hypnotic. It’s a privilege to watch these family dynamics play out in almost real-time.

Smith’s text gets better in the second act when the profound observations about ageing ramp up. Lines like “there are nice things at every age if we enjoy it at the time instead of in retrospect” and “getting older comes hardest on those with good memories” flesh out the characters who grow with necessarily colour. Another rumination about how being 40-something feels too close to youth but being 50-something makes you the youngest of the old bunch felt relatable to me even at 34.

Ultimately the text, which hasn’t been performed on stage since 1967, needs a cut. An hour shorter and I’d be excited to see what this play by the author who wrote something very famous about a load of dalmatians might look like.

Dear Octopus plays at the National Theatre until 27 March

Read more: Just For One Day review: ★★ Shockingly tone deaf Live Aid musical

Read more: The King and I theatre review: Dated musical has some lovely bits

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?