Theatre Review - Dear Octopus

Lindsay Duncan in Dear Octopus [Marc Brenner]

DODIE Smith is best known for her novels, The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle. But she was also a successful playwright. 

Set on the eve of the Second World War, the National’s revival of Smith’s 1938 domestic drama, Dear Octopus, feels a daring programme choice given its old-fashioned setting and themes.

The Randolph clan are reunited for the 50th wedding anniversary of matriarch Dora (Lindsay Duncan) and her husband Charles (Malcolm Sinclair).

Anyone from a large family will recognise the push and pull of sibling rivalries, the duties of care and love. The eponymous octopus refers to the tentacles of family which, Smith suggests, you can never fully escape.

Most of the overlong first act is taken up with introducing the various characters. Dora is constantly sending her guests on errands – to fetch chairs or to light another fire.

The ghosts of two children hang over the gathering of four generations – one, Dora’s eldest son, was killed in the First World War.

Dora’s “companion” Fenny (Bessie Carter) harbours a crush for another son, puckish Nicholas (Billy Howle), who works in advertising and is a born flirt. Dora also reunites with her daughter Cynthia (Bethan Cullinane) who has been absent for seven years.

Other than these gentle intrigues, nothing much happens, but there’s tension in our knowledge that the family and everything they hold dear is about to be ripped apart by another war.

There’s also humour in the barbed remarks of Dora and Aunt Belle (Kate Fahy) who have embraced aging in different ways.

Frankie Bradshaw’s set is a triumph and it’s exquisitely staged by Emily Burns. Although the story is dated, Dear Octopus proves a poignant celebration of the ties of family, for better or worse.

Until March 27

Originally published by Westminster Extra