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Octopolis by Mark Horn at Hampstead Theatre

Apparently, a sign above the stage read ‘A Future’ on occasion, although from my vantage point, there was only ever a sign reading ‘The Past’ – regardless, I take it none of the stage action was in anything that might possibly resemble the present. There was also a statement of some sort that was displayed on a large screen at the back of the stage in the closing moments of the show, but it wasn’t decipherable, which made me wonder why it was put up at all. Further, is it a metaphor for the production as a whole – something that was so ‘other’ it was difficult to fathom?

Ewan Miller in Octopolis. Credit The Other Richard.
Ewan Miller in Octopolis. Credit The Other Richard.

The plotline itself, mind you, isn’t complicated: there’s an octopus (well, there isn’t, because why on earth would there be a live octopus on stage in a London theatre – but, as ever, one suspends one’s disbelief). The octopus, Frances, is the subject of extensive research by Professor George Grey (Jemma Redgrave). The university she works at has assigned an anthropologist, Dr Henry Giscard (Ewan Miller) to stay in the same employer-owned house as hers. Grey, recently widowed and with a typically – or stereotypically – abrasive manner that certain academics have towards almost everybody, is at least someone who provides Giscard with plenty to write about for his own research.

Far too much is described in the first half, which occasionally works, such as when Giscard tells Grey to put some clothes on, the production avoiding unnecessary nudity and engaging the audience’s imagination in one go. But when Grey tells the audience, “He handed me a coffee”, or Giscard observes, “She was angry now,” it was frankly superfluous. Just as well, then, that at some point they simply stopped telling the audience what one another was up to and actually started acting scenes out instead of trying to emulate the audio description feature on the telly.

At just under one hundred minutes without interval, it could have done with a break in proceedings, as well as more discussion about octopuses themselves (you could use ‘octopi’ as the plural but this production consistently uses the not incorrect ‘octopuses’). It says something that I learned more about octopus behaviour from an article in the show’s programme than from the show itself, the show focusing more on the power play between two academics interjected with occasional, seemingly random, movement breaks. I couldn’t quite stretch to calling them dance breaks, as there was little actual dancing to be seen, and the horrified look on a fellow patron’s face during one of the songs was more entertaining than the scene in question.

The cast are very convincing – Redgrave’s Grey is palpably angry quite regularly, and never apologetic when she climbs down from Mount Fury, while Miller’s Giscard is the more diplomatic type, at least in person – his written academic output is where he lets his opinions be fully expressed. I would imagine most people’s exposure to it would be on the teaching and lecturing side of things rather than the research aspects, so the play does provide some interesting insights into the latter. Even so, “I think I’m losing the thread of this slightly,” Giscard asserts at one point – he wasn’t the only one. A strange and curious production, it was well acted but didn’t quite work for me, as there was so much bickering there was a part of me that wondered if I was watching a soap opera.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Professor George Grey is a brilliant behavioural biologist who, alongside her recently deceased husband, became world-renowned for her pioneering research into octopus intelligence. Mainly the intelligence of one particular octopus, in fact: Frances, who still resides in a large, purpose-built tank in George’s campus accommodation.

Into this house of grief walks Harry, an ambitious anthropologist, despatched by the university with permission to test his breath-taking new theory on Frances. The nature of his assignment is shocking to George, and threatens to tear her world apart in more ways than one.

HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
OCTOPOLIS
BY MAREK HORN
DIRECTED BY ED MADDEN
15 SEP – 28 OCT 2023
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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