Tuesday 20 February 2024

Dear Octopus - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Dodie Smith
Directed by Emily Burns

Lindsay Duncan, Billy Howle, Bessie Carter and Malcolm Sinclair

Dodie Smith’s 1938 play is given a glorious revival at the Lyttleton. Dora and Charles Randolph (spectacularly played by Lindsay Duncan and Malcolm Sinclair) are celebrating their golden wedding in their country home that has been the family base for generations as relatives including children, grandchildren and one great-grandchild join them for the weekend’s festivities.

The sensitive genius of Smith’s writing is to observe the dynamics between the couple’s four daughters and a son - and to extract from all of these relationships the tender complexities of love, embarrassment, shame and even loss with a language that while of its time and dated, remains just as poignant for the 21st century and which never once descends into mawkish sentimentality. A lengthy first act slightly drags - but the second half soars through moments of the sweetest reconciliations amongst the assembled clan.

The cast are all magnificent. Of the adult children Bethan Cullinane’s Cynthia stands out for the remarkable interplay between her and her mother, while Billy Howle as gauche son Nicholas is another performance of remarkable sensitivity. Outside of the family, the role of the housemaid Fenny is a part of acute emotional complexity, skilfully delivered by Bessie Carter. A nod too to Kate Fahy’s Belle, Dora’s sister and a woman who has aged disgracefully yet wonderfully.

Duncan and Sinclair head their family with a perfect combination of warmth, understanding and gravitas. Duncan in particular delivers her role in a spectacular display of understated excellence. Rarely is such a loving matriarch to be found on stage.

The time and place of Dear Octopus (the plays title is drawn from a reference to the tentacular grasp of the family) is reflected both in Smith’s text - the losses of the Great War still smart, as the radio tells of a need to prepare for war as Chamberlain appeases Hitler - and in Frankie Bradshaw’s glorious set design that makes full use of the Lyttleton’s lofty fly tower and impressive revolve

Emily Burns has directed with a sure but nuanced hand, coaxing and crafting an evening of the finest talent from her company. Exquisite drama. 

Runs until 27th March
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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