Dear Octopus ★★★★ National Theatre | Feb 7 - Mar 27, 2024

With a big house full of servants and an air of formality even amongst family members, Dodie Smith's hit from 1938 has a hint of nostalgia about it. However, it still rings wonderfully true to the enduring reality of family relations today. All the spats, the secrets, the sympathy and the support that comprise family life are exposed in a way that will resonate for almost everyone. Indeed, when the four generations of the Randolph family gather to celebrate the golden anniversary of matriarch, Dora, played by Lindsay Duncan, and patriarch, Charles, played by Malcolm Sinclair, the ensuing squabbles and reconciliations echo the essence of family gatherings everywhere. They will inevitably bring some bemused smiles of recognition, for Smith's themes are enduring and her insights are unerring and touching. While the love story of Fenny (Bessie Carter) and Nicholas (Billy Howle) may seem a bit contrived, the camaraderie and conflict amongst the four siblings is beautifully sketched, and the scene in which Dora and Charles discuss religion is thoughtful and affecting. The return of the prodigal, Cynthia (Bethan Cullinane) is also handled in a manner that bespeaks the strengths and weaknesses of the ties that bind. In his speech at the celebratory dinner, eldest son, Nicholas refers to the present fashion to expose families as either villains or clowns, whereas he sees them as heroic. Nicholas might equally well be describing the current depiction of family life in the theatre, and it is a nice change to see Dodie Smith's sympathetic, yet nuanced, portrayal of the "dear octopus."

If we have any hesitation about this present production, it is that at the beginning of the piece, as the cast ease into their roles. The acting seems rather mannered, and it is only as we get into the series of vignettes that make up this study of the Randolph clan that the cast members relax and their characters come into focus. In fact, the complexity of dealing with over a dozen different characters and their kinship might prove a bit of a challenge for the audience, an issue which could have been obviated by a simple family tree in the programme. Cavils aside however, all of the cast rise to the occasion and do manage to skillfully individuate their characters, while Lindsay Duncan as the imperious, but kind hearted, Dora is simply splendid. Like most of us, this family is absorbed by its small triumphs and tribulations, but radio reports are interjected which foreshadow events in the wider realm that put their domestic life into a larger, more threatening context. The timeless truth of Smith's work is that while families are so often caught up in their own affairs of the day-to-day, there are larger forces at work that can affect us all.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Marc Brenner

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