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Dear Octopus

  • Theatre, Comedy
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Dear Octopus, National Theatre, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Dodie Smith’s ’30s smash now feels like a period curio, but this production is beautifully done

When ‘Dear Octopus’ opened on the West End it was 14 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain was on his way to Germany to appease Hitler and Britain stood uneasily – if not yet knowingly – on the brink of war. Dodie Smith’s comedy about ‘the family, that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to’ was lightweight stuff for heavyweight times. It was a smash hit. Gielgud starred in it, the King and Queen loved it. It ran for yonks, was revived many times and then sank, like so many other well-made inter-war dramas, into fairly well-deserved oblivion. 

Eighty-odd years later, the most interesting thing about it is its audacious authoress, Dodie Smith: the London shopgirl and showgirl who really found her stride with fiction, namely ‘The Hundred And One Dalmatians’ and, later, one of the finest and most poignant coming-of-age novels in English, ‘I Capture The Castle’. Smith was a vividly romantic writer with candour, insight and verve, and she absolutely deserves renewed interest, and equal or superior credit to the languid men who dominated the interwar newspaper columns. But this classy but stolid revival of a soapy period comedy isn't going to make her case clear.

The action, such as it is, opens in the entrance hall of a slightly peeling family pile, painted a sad arsenic green by designer Frankie Bradshaw. A family is gathering for the golden wedding celebration of mater and pater Dora and Charles (Lindsay Duncan and Malcolm Sinclair). Families were bigger in the ’30s. War and illness have cut out the eldest son and a younger daughter but even so, this one demands a huge cast of adults who are hard to distinguish from each other despite the handy stereotypes. The main business of the first half is to introduce them all: Eldest Son’s Officious Widow, Grownup Grandson and Wife, Humorous Bachelor Son, Career Girl Daughter with OCD, Married Daughter Who Has Put On Weight, Flirty Son-in-Law and Lovelorn Ladies’ Companion. Lindsay Duncan keeps them all busy in her charming, steely way, sending them out on numerous pointless ‘little jobs’ that have them running up the shabby grand staircase and out of the doors and back again. It’s like a farce without the fun – or a Christie without the crime.

There are kids to sort out too – three children and a baby. I don’t know where the National gets its child actors from but they have an outstanding supplier right now. Young Felix Tandon is terrific as pre-pubescent badboy Bill. He, and the kids upstairs doing ‘The Witches’, are acting their socks off. The grownups had better pull theirs up: Duncan is icily splendid but not all the others can match her. 

The second half picks up and it’s easier to enjoy the Britticisms once you've figured out what's what: ‘You see nature in the raw at our golfclub,’ drawls Duncan, to great guffaws. 'Dear Octopus' is a play that’s mostly preoccupied with age, and how to age gracefully, in your thirties, forties or seventies. Ironically, it has not aged well. There are many creaky moments like the one when Bill greets a present from his rakish uncle with the less-than-immortal line: ‘A paint box! O, you heavenly man!’. Despite the audience’s hours of Downton training, disbelief cannot remain suspended.

It’s a period curiosity, basically. But this is a pleasant revival. Emily Burns directs with a lightness of touch and finds moments of charm and comedy. The darker depths of World War before and World War to come are unmined, just implied slightly by a few empty portrait frames hanging above the stairs. I felt by the end as if I had actually been a guest at a slightly boring, ultimately heartwarming family party – complete with some dodgy singing round the piano from granny and an overlong toast. Which is not something you necessarily need to go to the theatre for.

When ‘Dear Octopus’ was revived in Windsor 30-odd years ago, the Queen Mother apparently wrote to the 92-year-old Smith to say how much she had enjoyed seeing it again. That's the spirit to approach this with: lashings of nostalgia, and a very stiff gin and dubonet.

Written by
Caroline McGinn


£20-£99. Runs 2hr 45min
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