REVIEW: Dear Octopus, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith now playing at the Lyttleton at the National Theatre, London.

Dear Octopus
Ariella Elkins Green, Dharmesh Patel, Billy Howle and Amy Morgan. Photo: Marc Brenner

Dear Octopus
The National Theatre, Lyttleton.
14 February 2024
4 Stars

Emily Burn’s revival of Dodie Smith’s 1938 play resonates with family friction and love. The Randolph family gather to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Dora and Charles, and four generations gather under the family roof. There are long held feuds, secrets, unspoken desires and opportunities for resolution and celebration. It’s thin on plot, and with such a large cast there are inevitably characters who are underdeveloped. But the strength is in Smith’s dialogue, cracking with sassy put downs, and the ensemble are perfect. And one star is Frankie Bradshaw’s revolving set, capturing the faded grandeur of the home perfectly, wallpaper is faded and peeling, but you sense it will never be changed, much like the family.

Dear Octopus
The company of Dear Octopus. Photo: Marc Brenner

Head matriarch is Dora, with Lyndsay Duncan giving an excellent, perfect performance, her wonderful voice oozing caramel even when making catty remarks about her older, (?) sister Belle, another perfect characterisation from Kate Fahy. Glamorous, and always perfectly made up, Nora wonders about the danger of “taking a face like that out in the rain.”, and there is a gorgeous scene when Belle talks to Charles, (beautifully dignified and tolerant Malcolm Sinclair), openly discusses being in love with him for fifty years and her failed marriages. But the chief concern for the audience is the relationship between Fenny and Nicholas, both in love with other, an open secret among the rest of the family. Beautifully performed by Bessie Carter and Billy Howie, the threat of a marriage proposal from the local chicken farmer finally forces them to have the conversation we are waiting for. In many ways, they are the heart of the show.

Dear Octopus
Malcolm Sinclair and Kate Fahy. Photo: Marc Brenner

There are many joys in the sublime script and performances, especially the way that Nora gathers the family together, then sends them off to do little jobs, but love shines from her every pore. It’s very genteel, and the pace is gentle, occasionally, much like Nicholas’s Dear Octopus speech, goes off at tangents and can be a little frustrating. Unlike the other family drama playing at the National, Till The Stars Come Down, this is a far less explosive play, and the stakes never feel too high.

National Theatre
Kate Fahy, Billy Howle, Lyndsay Duncan, Ariella Elkins Green, Isla Ithier and Amy Morgan. Photo: Marc Brenner

But it’s a snapshot of a family on the cusp of another war, and scene change radio broadcasts of Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” diplomacy, remind us of just how fragile this family will become. That huge house is likely to be requisitioned by the army within a very short time, and one wonders how many of the family will continue to gather and celebrate. A beautifully poignant piece.

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