Theatre Royal Windsor
Reviewed – 1st April 2019
“In spite of the dogged efforts of the cast, the audience just didn’t get many of the jokes”
Billed as ‘an instant modern classic like ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’’, Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson’s ‘Octopus Soup!’ is a new British farce, developed and premiered by the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, before a national tour which continues to May 4.
Where would theatre be without farce? At its best and in the hands of masters like Ayckbourn or Feydeau its ingredients are brilliant wit, sexual intrigue, and a lot of ‘business’ as comedic stereotypes get utterly confounded by impossible situations. But is the recipe right for this particular bouillabaisse?
‘Octopus Soup!’ has an accomplished and hard-working cast, admirably led by Nick Hancock, who helped to create and then presented ‘Room 101’ for seven years from its inception in 1992. He plays the risk-averse but increasingly desperate insurance man Seymour Norse who is about to make the biggest presentation of his life to the CEO of GIT, a troubled insurance company (an authoritative and satisfying performance by Gillian Bevan, who recently appeared as Theresa May in Channel 4’s ‘The Windsors’).
Before a word of dialogue is spoken, Seymour Norse has lost his trousers. A predictable enough part of the mix, but pretty wasted at the top of the show. The arrival of a blundering burglar (a smart performance by Paul Bradley) stirs up the plot, which then takes a few fishy twists before a fairly predictable ending. Norse’s nervy wife is wittily played by Carolyn Backhouse, a regular at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Eric Richard makes a satisfying appearance as a nasty underworld boss with a taste for seal sanctuaries. Terry the octopus twitches, a bullet is fired. Thanks to a well-known casserole company, which got the biggest laugh of the evening, someone is dead, or are they? So much for the slide presentation and for the plot, which stretches pretty thinly over the evening.
Actors often say that a play that seems lack-lustre one night will shine the next, simply because of the mood of one audience compared to another. I have to report that the audience in Windsor on Monday weren’t hungry for octopus soup. The fault seemed to lie not with the performances, or the set, or even the slightly dodgy sound effects, but with the writing. Many of the jokes relied on fairly improbable malapropisms of the ‘Ethics? – I come from there!’ kind. In spite of the dogged efforts of the cast, the audience just didn’t get many of the jokes, particularly in the limping first act.
The final line sank like a damp soufflé, and the cast seemed only too quick to leave the stage.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Robert Day
Theatre Royal Windsor until 6th April then UK Tour continues
Previous shows covered by this reviewer:
Reviewed – 5th November 2018
“Flora Spencer-Longhurst, as Simona, is a real theatrical force”
We are in a run-down bedsit, somewhere in London. Half empty whisky bottles compete with discarded manuscript papers for floor space, and swathes of broken violins hang from the rafters. Just as broken is Ye; a former child prodigy. A virtuoso violinist. A victim of a near-fatal car crash that has left her in a wheel chair. A victim of her own jaded view of her success.
The publicity blurb describes this character as suicidal, but Lucy Sheen’s portrayal of Ye yields many, many more dimensions than that. Her deadpan misanthropy, perfectly nuanced, immediately tells the audience that there is a painful backstory here. Yet writer, Jesse Briton, does not allow for any self-pitying clichés in her well-toned script that pitches sharp comedy in perfect harmony with the flattened dreams of its protagonist.
In walks Simona, the spoilt daughter of a Russian billionaire, who has reluctantly been sent by her father for violin lessons. Like cats with bristled tails they are both on the defensive and, more so, the offensive. But forced into this unlikely allegiance, the pair embark on a journey that sees them chip away at each other until some harsher lessons are learnt.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst, as Simona, is a real theatrical force. She manages to transform the character’s teenage spoilt brat into one of fierce independence with a passion for understanding. She starts out breaking a violin and ends up breaking our hearts.
At the heart of A Pupil is the nature of friendship and the conflict of what constitutes success, both in musical and material terms. In a poignant scene Ye explains to her protégé that a priceless violin is worthless in itself. In parallel she concludes her childhood friend Phyllida’s (Carolyn Backhouse) musical success is equally lacking in value because the integrity is missing. Backhouse’s strong and assuredly cool performance gives the counter argument. What good is Ye’s own virtuosity if she can’t pay the rent? The audience is left to make up its own mind.
Yet the strength of Jessica Daniels’ production lies in the fact we are never aware that these ideologies are being explored. It is a very human story underscored with love. Love that is tested to its limits so that the strings are always in danger of snapping. What saves it are the brilliantly staccato notes of humour. The teenage Simona, who cannot read music, interprets the ‘sharp’ symbol on a manuscript as ‘hashtag’. And there’s a show stealing performance from Melanie Marshall as Mary, the long-suffering landlady perpetually chanting the hymn “Lord of the Dance”, while hilariously chastising all around her with a down to earth no-nonsense reasoning.
I’ve been reluctant to draw attention to it until now, as it seems fairer to leave it as a surprise, but I feel I cannot avoid mentioning the live music – a mixture of classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Spencer-Longhurst’s musicianship is a revelation. “If you have the ability to move other people, there’s nothing else that really compares” she recently said in an interview.
Maybe that is the true nature of success, in which case this production wins all round. Despite a slightly undetermined ending A Pupil is a heartfelt portrayal of discordant souls looking for that resolution from dissonance to consonance.
“They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that’ll never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me:
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.”
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Meurig Marshall
Park Theatre until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: