A farcical blend of ingredients in Octopus Soup

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And the starters for you, madam? The Octopus Soup? Actually, that’s the only course, and it’s dish of the week at the Devonshire Park Theatre.

A lot of good productions come out of the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, and producer Simon Fielder has a good feel for what entertains. This brand new play – written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson – does have merits; energy, originality and a kind of cheerful brashness. But a snappy script and some tireless acting cannot compensate for a ridiculous plot, thinly stretched across two acts.

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The actors work hard, and sometimes laboriously, with the material. Nick Hancock, broadcaster and originator of BBC’s Room 101, makes a relatively rare sally into stage acting, and delivers an amusing portrayal of harrassed and hapless insurance executive Seymour.

In what must be a first even for British farces, he has his trousers off before a line of dialogue is even spoken – although only to pop them into the trouser-press, ahead of a career-defining video conference with insurance magnate Virginia, played by Gillian Bevan. Virginia’s first act appearances on a large video monitor are pre-recorded, which gave the actors one or two nervy moments with timing. Turning up to a second-act dinner party Gillian is assured and quite imperious, and possibly the sanest person on set.

By then, Seymour’s sales pitch has been queered and his presentation utterly ruined by the intrusion of Marvin, your unfriendly local burglar. Paul Bradley quickly has the audience onside, with some clownish body language and a genuinely funny batch of Malapropisms. Quite why the inept and boorish Marvin has attempted this unlikely crime is never made clear, but once he’s in, he is in. And all credibility is out.

Within minutes, Seymour has been tied up by Marvin but still soldiers on with the video presentation. He wants to sell a game-changing piece of new software to Virginia, but once she has wearied of the project and dialled down, big Marvin and Seymour forge an improbable new alliance.

Readers, I am in danger of relating the entire plot to you, but you too would weary of it. Suffice that the story lurches into Act Two with the arrival of Seymour’s hypertense soap-actress wife – an entertaining reading by Carolyn Backhouse – and the staging of a catastrophic dinner party.

Eric Richard, deliciously sinister as a sub-Kray gangster boss, turns up to complete the quintet of characters in search of an outcome. Oh, and animatronic Trevor the Octopus – Marvin’s unlikely pet – appears intermittently, but thankfully escapes being turned into soup. The classic elements of farce are there: bold characters, lots of confusion, sharp timing and some witty one-liners. Under Joe Harmston’s direction the acting is overall brisk, confident and suited to the genre. But by the final curtain, it has worn too thin.

Perhaps Octopus Soup needs a different balance of ingredients. Traditional farce laced with social comment is like a trifle with curry powder. By Kevin Anderson.

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