Image: Robert Day

“Undoubtedly clever”: review of Belgrade Theatre’s ‘Octopus Soup!’

Did you know that the octopus only has a life expectancy of a couple of years? Or that their arms can explore independently of their central brain? I learned these facts while reading the programme for the Belgrade Theatre’s latest comedy, Octopus Soup!, preparing for a night of comedy. Does the play deliver? Well, in parts – but the fun premise suffers from a lack of focus on providing as many laughs as it really should.

Seymour Norse (Nick Hancock) is the safest man in Britain – an insurance consultant who wears two belts (just to be safe) and has an ingenious plan to revolutionise the business. Everything rests on one important conference call to Virginia (Gillian Bevan), the CEO of the largest insurance company in the world, making it a terrible time for something to go wrong. When Marvin (Paul Bradley), an over-the-hill burglar with bad knees chooses that night to rob his house, Seymour soon finds himself trapped in an increasingly outlandish scenario, especially when his neurotic actress wife Gloria (Carolyn Backhouse), Marvin’s boss Alan (Eric Richard) and a very temperamental octopus get involved.

The fun premise suffers from a lack of focus on providing as many laughs as it really should

To begin with, the show is a two-hander between Hancock and Bradley, and it’s Bradley who comes out best in this equation. He’s incredibly good fun as the inept Marvin, the comic to Hancock’s straight man. Hancock is fine throughout, although much of his performance is standing at the side of the stage as the other characters do amusing things. The best character in the show is Gloria, and Backhouse gives a tour-de-force showcase, a real presence who hams it up without ever being hammy: the scenes in which Gloria acts out her persona from a potential TV job are the play’s highlight.

The other two actors lose out a little, though through no fault of their own. Richard makes for a compelling crime boss (and it’s an interesting against-type if you used to watch The Bill), but he doesn’t really get too much to do. Bevan really loses out because her character feels like she’s from a different play entirely, and that leads into the play’s main fault – the way the insurance element of its storyline plays out. The play is undoubtedly clever, and the construction of the plot is very well done, but it really overruns on both the amount of insurance content and the time it dedicates to it. It was noticeable that the play picked up in the second half – all of the cast were onstage together, and it definitely had more jokes than the opening – and that was also connected to the focus on farce and humour rather than insurance.

Backhouse gives a tour-de-force showcase, a real presence who hams it up without ever being hammy

The comic vibe really suffers when Virginia or Seymour took turns to engage in insurance discussion – it’s important as a plot element, certainly, but there must have been a way to convey it to the audience that doesn’t take up two minutes of what really ought to be jokes. This is particularly striking in a quite-slow opening, in which Seymour attempts to give a major insurance presentation whilst being burgled – it ought to be prime comic material, yet most of the dialogue in this scene is about finance or Seymour saying some variant of ‘I have to do this presentation’. Somehow it just missed the mark. Many of the comments about bankers and insurers essentially being criminals don’t really land, either, and you have to wonder whether it was worth including the heavy-handed social commentary that doesn’t really go anywhere.

Octopus Soup! is a fun night out and the show is definitely enjoyable. The farcical elements are all there, and the actors are giving it everything – if only it had taken care to fine-tune the humour as much as its story, it could have been essential viewing. I’d still recommend it, but it is a good experience at the theatre rather than a great one.

Octopus Soup! is at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 16 February. You can buy tickets here.

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