'Dear Octopus' review – Dodie Smith's properly laugh-out-loud funny play deserves a further life

Read our five-star review of Dear Octopus, starring Lindsay Duncan, now in performances at the National Theatre to 27 March.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

It would be easy to dismiss a 1938 play about an “ordinary” upper-middle-class family experiencing the “servant problem” of the time (despite having a cook on call to prepare tea and muffins for 10 at a moment’s notice, a parlourmaid, and a nanny of 47 years’ service), and with precocious children known as Flouncy and Scrap, as precious and dated. That would be a grave mistake. If Jane Austen had been writing plays in the 1930s, she may well have penned something akin to Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus.

Smith was one of the most commercially and critically successful playwrights of her time, and Dear Octopus was her final and, it seems to be agreed, finest of a run of pre-World War II hits. Smith continues to be beloved for her coming-of-age novel I Capture the Castle and children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians but her plays disappeared from view following the demise of the repertory system.

This multi-layered yet light-as-a-feather production by Emily Burns, performed by an exceptional ensemble, feels revelatory. The themes of memory, loss and ageing call to mind Chekhov but without the self-indulgence, and it’s filled with zingers that are really, properly laugh-out-loud funny.

Four generations of the Randolph family gather in their sprawling East Anglia manor house to celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of parents Charles and Dora, who remain very much in love in a non-showy English kind of way. The family is largely happy, but they are not perfect.

The house, a revolving dining room and drawing-room/nursery exquisitely designed by Frankie Bradshaw, is full but there are conspicuous absences: Charles and Dora once had seven children but only five are living. The eldest, Peter, was killed in the Great War, leaving behind a widow Edna (Pandora Colin) and a son Hugh (Tom Glenister), now grown-up and a new father himself; and a daughter, Nora (mother of Scrap), died a few years previously.

We’re plunged into this gathering with 101 undercurrents brewing and it takes a while to work out the family tree. Dora (the wonderful Lindsay Duncan), gets the lion’s share of the best lines, and keeps everyone busy by delegating “little jobs”.

Paterfamilias Charles (Malcolm Sinclair), who is content to be in the background most of the time, has no regrets not achieving his youthful ambitions and beautifully expresses the way in which he has been blissfully happy with a life of putting up shelves and pottering. It’s a marked contrast to Aunt Belle (Kate Fahy), who has returned from decades in America, and tries to fight off the ageing process with garish hair dye and heavy make-up.

There’s beautifully detailed and delicate performance from Bessie Carter as Fenny, Mrs Randolph’s companion and the family treasure, who pines for youngest sibling Nicholas (Billy Howle, in the role created by John Gielgud), a bachelor balancing careless jollity with existential angst, who only sees her as a pal and is under the thumb of his older sister-in-law Edna. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Fanny Price’s situation in Austen’s Mansfield Park, though the Randolphs are far more benevolent than the plantation-owning Bertrams and treat her (almost) as an equal.

Smith, an only child who grew up in a large family of aunts and uncles, brilliantly captures the brittle dynamics between siblings and how far they can needle each other when reunited in the nursery. Margery (Amy Morgan), mother of Flouncy and her brother Bill, attempts to spice up her suburban golf club existence by “lending” out her husband Kenneth (Dharmesh Patel), and Hilda (Jo Herbert) is a career woman debilitated by OCD (“neurosis”).

Smith herself was no stranger to more alternative and morally ambivalent lifestyles (she had a long affair with Ambrose Heal, her boss at the furniture store of the same name). There’s a beautiful moment when glamorous Parisian runaway daughter Cynthia (Bethan Cullinane), the late Nora’s twin, and Dora have their heart-to-heart and we see how this traditionalist has become more liberal with age, with no qualms remarking that “It’s better to lose a principle than a daughter”.

A gorgeous evening that deserves to spread its tentacles further than this limited run. Terence Rattigan has had his well-deserved reappraisal; surely now it’s Dodie Smith’s turn.

Dear Octopus is at the National Theatre through 27 March.

Photo credit: Dear Octopus (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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