Dear Octopus – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Dodi Smith

Director: Emily Burns

There is something so evocative about interwar drama, from Terence Rattigan to Noel Coward and JB Priestley, a fascinating period of British self-reckoning told through sprawling family plays about the long shadow of the First World War and the deep personal and social scars that shape character’s lives, the foreboding knowledge of another war to come and a bewildering sense of loss that weighs them down. Now the National Theatre revives Dodi Smith’s Dear Octopus, a rare play by a female writer from this era that sets that larger context but still manages to be sprightly, beautifully observed and full of hope that love in all its forms is the answer.

Dora and Charles gather their adult children, in-laws and grandchild to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary taking place across a weekend. With the house full of merriment, the family have a chance to reflect on their lives together and apart, wondering if life is passing them by. With daughter Cynthia returning from a seven-year absence in Paris and live-in companion Fenny pining for eldest son Nicholas, the family have much to confront before they part once more.

With Beth Steel’s superb Till the Stars Come Down playing in the Dorfman, the scheduling of Dear Octopus in the Lyttleton is excellent programming with both female-led plays centred around an important family party, blending personal and national concerns. Smith’s play is just as gripping and evocative as Steel’s, understanding the restrictions and minutiae of women’s lives, their spans of control and the intimate relationship between siblings that long absences can never entirely sever.

And the National always has such insight into interwar playwriting, of the elegiac tone and deep feeling of characters pretending not to feel anything, all on the brink of enormous change where an old way of life is about to be lost forever. Directed by Emily Burns, this knowledge seems to sit at the back of the characters’ minds, especially the primary siblings Nicholas, Cynthia and Margery, as they ponder the burden of age, of life speeding up and the pressure of their own ancestors felt about the house, even of not wanting to inherit the family home and letting it finally pass away as though just being in it infects them all with a poisoned nostalgia.

Yet Smith’s writing is so wonderfully human, capturing the small moments that prove eternal such as the latest group of cheeky children to fill the nursery or the painful missteps of early love affairs when Fenny and Nicholas say all the wrong things. Burns’ production knows this collection of scenes are the things that really make up a family and a life, not the sombre voice of Neville Chamberlain on the radio taking the nation into war. Generations may come and go but these bonds, traditions and faith in being together give this production of Dear Octopus its warmth.

Smith’s writing is both bitingly funny and very tender, never more so than in the character of Dora played magnificently by Lindsay Duncan who devotedly terrorises her brood by sending them off to do “little jobs” every time they try to sit down. It is a wonderfully complex performance, the most contented adult character in the play in many ways but given depth by Smith with several savage attacks on sister Belle (Kate Fahy) whose age and beauty become a point of contention.

There is real sensitivity in the creation of the siblings too and while they are not fully drawn, Billy Howle’s Nicholas struggles to articulate his feelings for outsider Fenny (Bessie Carter) and the tenderness between them that curdles to disappointment is very nicely controlled. Bethan Cullinane’s Cynthia hints at a rotten time in Paris and wants to be out of the house as soon as possible but is also treated with kindness by Smith who takes Cynthia on a redemptive journey, while Amy Morgan’s Margery endures plenty of taunts from her own children but reveals an empathy that ultimately reflects the kindness of the wider family.

On Frankie Bradshaw’s revolving set, there are hints of dilapidation in the two downstairs rooms we see, while Burns fills in the gaps between scenes with a smattering of vignettes, a small but bustling place ever filled with family activity. It is filled with loss of course, of brothers, sons and daughters gone before their time to the previous war, age and unspecified ends, but Burns’ production is full of life, of a family that will keep on replicating itself on and on no matter what lays ahead for them all.

Runs until 27 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Beautifully observed

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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