Dear Octopus

As a title, there’s something intriguing about Dear Octopus, now playing the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage. The salutation to the eight-legged creature suggests a surreal or fantastical theme.

Downton Abbey on diazepam

You may wonder if this is the sort of new writing more usually seen at the National’s smaller Dorfman space. Or if the movement associated with the titular creature alludes to another performance art piece like the recent Kin.

Sadly, it isn’t. And it doesn’t.

Dear Octopus was written in 1938 by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmatians fame). Set during this pre-war era, it revolves around an upper middle-class family who come together in the grand family estate to celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of their parents.

It looks nice.

It is performed well.

And it is dull, dull, dull.

Visiting the Lyttelton six months ago, I wrote “If you think this theatre is only for stuffy classicists, The Effect could make you think again.” This production of Dear Octopus completely reverts that statement and backs up the initial presumption.

It is theatre that exists in and of itself. It should only be seen by people of a certain age and temperament: many of whom may be National Theatre patrons.

The play simply gathers its characters and lets them blandly converse for two and a half hours. It has no story to tell, no insight to offer, no thoughts to provoke. It is not just that the rites and rituals of the classes it portrays no longer exist, it’s that they probably never did. This is theatre’s pretence of life, not a reflection of any history other than the history of theatre itself.

As is common in hundred-year-old plays we lazily call ‘classics,’ the dialogue is unnatural and clunky. People ‘wonder’ about things and look askance. Memories are given voice without any prompting. The only thing missing is the spoon by which they could feed us these large morsels of supposed intrigue.

Nobody speaks like these people speak. We accept it because we recognise the same patterns from similar bad representations.

Each character is introduced in turn, sandwiched between analepses and prolepses. There is no subtlety to characterisation. Family and friends arrive as though reaching the head of the queue for their turn and tell rather than show the personality traits that describe their particular archetype.

The daughter who has been away for seven years. (“But where?”)

The son they wish hadn’t died. (“But how?”)

The friend whose glamour evokes jealous barbs. (“But why?”)

The precocious children who erupt with glee over a jigsaw. (“But…oh just fuck off!”)

Such prolonged build-up naturally builds our expectations of the expositions that may follow. We are sadly disappointed. Only those who slept through the first act – which would be understandable – could be surprised by revelations of romantic feelings or war-related deaths.

It’s not all tedium. There is amusement to be had by some of the bitchier lines given to Dora, the matriarch of the family, played with delicious devilment by Lindsay Duncan. Her subtle ageing of her ‘friend’ as she ponders how she manages to wear her made-up face in the rain, provoke much laughter.

It’s pleasant to look at. Designer Frankie Bradshaw has built a very traditional theatrical set. It has scale and grandeur. It has a front door down stage right, so we see the actors come onstage and wait for their entrances. It has stairs that exit to a hidden corridor of bedrooms. It is the sort of set you would expect to see at your local theatre production of an Agatha Christie play. But a more expensive version.

Dear Octopus is for you if you hark for theatre as it used to be. The sort of theatre where you know what you’re getting, and you’re glad you got it. Theatre that should be watched on a Sunday night with a cup of tea and a slice of Battenburg. It’s Downton Abbey on diazepam.

Everyone else should just let it pass them by. File it along with the likes of The Corn is Green, Rutherford and Son, Translations…as the annual National Theatre production that gets rolled out to please the high value donors. Like the bigotry of an elderly relative that has not been tempered by time, sometimes these things are best left ignored.

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Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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★★★★★
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★★

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Performances

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The Blurb

When a golden wedding anniversary reunites the Randolph family on the eve of WWII, Dora and Charles must reckon with the adults their children have become. Their children, meanwhile, are haunted by the memory of the family they once were.

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