Spring is often the time for a bit of lightheartedness, and a comedy that doesn’t ask too much of its audience, but aims to lighten their mood, is more than welcome in these days, when a look at the news often seems to be enough to get everyone depressed. I went into Octopus Soup in a particularly bad, if unrelated, anxious mood, and I have to give this new work a first victory in that it did manage to make me feel less oppressed. That, surely, must at the bottom of all be the main purpose of comedy; as far as that is concerned, the production is successful.
It is not a wildly innovative, experimental, or inventive piece of theatre, but then, it does not aim to be one; something I have observed in recent productions is that many of them feel almost a duty to be avant-garde in one form or other, whereas here we see a return to a classic stage setting – the entire play is set in protagonist Seymour’s living room – and small cast of characters who are more types than people: the berated consultant, well-meaning but awkward, caught in a plot much larger than him; the cockney gangster; the ruthless financier; the small-time actress with dreams of grandeur. Most original in this cast of characters is probably middle-aged burglar Marvin, played by Paul Bradley, who is easily the quirkiest and most endearing of the lot, and whose unexpected love of octopuses brings to the scene his pet Terry, the titular cephalopod, unlikely deus ex machina of a situation that towards the end of the second half begins to feel concerningly hard to resolve. The cast takes on their roles with self-irony and grace, and a slight degree of detachment that is more than appropriate in this kind of work (the play self-describes as a farce). They are solid, if not stunning, performances, which managed to draw a fair amount of laughter from the audience.
The humour in Octopus Soup is particularly British, in a rather traditional way: a blend of absurdity, puns on words, misunderstandings, tics, and awkward situations, always on the edge of surreal without ever fully falling into that description. British comedy has played with that type of scenarios and jokes for a long times; they are not always fully successful here, but there are some moments of brilliance, and the scene in which the head of an international insurance company and a boss of the underworld sustain an entire dialogue while both being convinced that they are in the same line of work is particularly noteworthy, and in its own way subtly political. There are other subtle references in the play that call out to politics and social injustices, but they are not overbearing nor, as a matter of fact, truly fundamental to the plot, which is the classic expedient of a comedy based on misunderstandings; blink and you’ll miss them – yet I am glad that those lighthearted jabs at a society that is not always on its best behaviour were there.
While it does not have the utter brilliance of, say, The Play that Goes Wrong, this is a solid piece of comedy, which does manage to achieve a resolution even though it makes its audience wonder more than once whether it is at all possible, and takes what might have come across as an expendable gag – the bad PowerPoint that is the starting point of it all – and turns it into a pivotal moment; where a couple of tired jokes are compensated by committed performances and some very clever ideas. For anyone that wants, or needs, a break from the grim flow of news on newspapers and television, this could be a very welcome alternative.