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Review: Dear Octopus (Lyttlelton Theatre)

Updated: Feb 19

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

The versatility of programming at National Theatre has gotten off to a strong start this year. While the Dorfman is currently home to new work, hosting the world premiere of the fantastic Till The World Comes Down, next door sees something a bit more familiar, as a new production of Dear Octopus gets its suction on the Lyttlelton Theatre for a limited run. Having passed through multiple generations, would this family play still stand the test of time?



Written by Dodie Smith, Dear Octopus was first seen in the West End in 1938. It tells the story of the Randolph family who reunite after varying lengths of time to celebrate the golden anniversary of Charles and Dora. As four generations of the family gather in the home many of them were raised in, family dynamics, secrets and emerging relationships all play out in this story which charts the highs and lows, joys and heartbreaks of a partly estranged family.

 

One of the most thrilling aspects of Dear Octopus is in its immediacy and intimacy. There is no huge plot twist nor a huge shocker to close the first act. Instead, we are left with a slow burn of a piece that keeps a gentle and familiar tone throughout, delving in to the intricacies of the many family members present in the play. While that may sound a little bit dull on paper, it is anything but. The familiarity is part of the charm of the story, no matter how big your family is or what your own history is – there is something recognisable in this for everyone, be that the feuding in-laws, the reluctance to change from the older generation or the hilariously uncouth acts of a child. It may be surprising to see just how current this play still feels, despite its setting and the fact it was written generations before I was born, but that is part of what makes this such a roaring success.



Dodie Smith’s writing remains fantastic to this day, still packing a punch with all of its nuances and complexities in relationships. How fleshed out each of the characters are is incredibly impressive, especially given the sheer number of them. We learn a bit about everyone’s past, what makes them tick and where they might be heading after the play has finished. This leads to a captivating watch and many a differing dynamic that fills the play with excitement, where the lack of a perceived big moment is absent. That’s not to say not much happens throughout the play, of course. Set over one weekend, some of the characters lives are transformed completely from their arrival to their departure, but this happens through a series of breadcrumbs throughout rather than one big scene. One of the greatest aspects of the play is how these adults revert back to their childlike selves at certain parts in the play, with one ingenious scene in the nursery a highlight.

 

The play premiered shortly before World War II broke out, and this production moves the time slightly forward to the eve of World War II. Though this theme isn’t fleshed out in detail, it lingers in the background thanks to a clever use of radio messages, making sure we know exactly where we are in history. References to a family member who lost their life in the previous war makes the events and timing of it all the more poignant and sorrowful.



Emily Burns’ direction takes Dodie Smith’s writing and gives it a fresh feel while still remaining true to its origins. With the beautiful sprawling set design by Frankie Bradshaw giving no shortage of scope to play with, Burns’ makes the most of this with a detailed approach, ensuring every character is always observed even if they don’t appear to be in the forefront of the action. Beautiful lighting from Oliver Fenwick and sound design from Tingying Dong complements the writing and the direction to leave a satisfyingly well-rounded production.

 

With 17 characters in the play, Dear Octopus relies very much on an ensemble cast, with each character getting their own moment in the spotlight. Though some have far more stage time than others, they all blend together seamlessly, bringing their own stamp to a series of very different characters in an effortlessly consistent cast. Lindsay Duncan is beautifully dominating as Dora, taking a less-is-more approach as she nonchalantly offers out small jobs to all of her family whenever they appear, with a brilliantly comedic manner. Malcolm Sinclair provides the perfect accomplice to her as husband Charles, leading to a formidable double act throughout.



Billy Howle has bundles of charisma as the sweet-natured Nicholas, with every scene he plays with Fenny, portrayed wonderfully by Bessie Carter, a delight and among the strongest of the play. Bethan Cullinane has one of the hardest characters to unravel as the complicated Cynthia, with a subtle and precise approach taking us on the journey with us. Another standout among the impressively strong cast is Kate Fahy as comic folly Belle. Though most of her scenes are there for comic relief, she does have one tender moment that shows a lot more depth than she may have been given credit for, showcasing Fahy’s fabulous talents as an actress. Credit must also go to the wonderful young cast who play the three children Flouncy, Scrap, and Bill – all of whom match that of their adult counterparts perfectly.

 

Dear Octopus is a refreshing piece of theatre whose deliberate decision to portray the action slowly and subtly leads to a truly impactful performance. Showcasing the complexities of family life, Dodie’s timeless writing from 86 years ago remains as striking now, with inspired direction and a wonderful cast maximising the strength of it all. At times it can be surprising how current the action feels. Times may have changed and houses may be wired with electricity now, but the basic premise of Dear Octopus remains the same, with many of us able to relate to the family whose tentacles we never quite escape. Two productions down for 2024 and National Theatre are proving themselves to be gloriously consistent with Dear Octopus sure to swim into the hearts of everyone who goes to see it.



Dear Octopus plays at the Lyttleton Theatre until 27th March. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/dear-octopus/

 

Photos by Marc Brenner

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