Brighton Fringe 2017
Octopus is the most fun you can have being beaten up. It’s brash, it’s funny and it’s poignant. Whatever you think you think about immigration, you’ll leave knowing that you think something.
Octopus is set in the waiting room of an immigration centre in a dystopian world. Three women are waiting to be seen for assessments that will determine their futures. Throughout the play the characters make discoveries about their respective heritages, as well as about each other. The show uses a minimal set, with a dozen or so orange plastic chairs complemented by only one swivel chair, a laptop, and a rucksack.
Opening with several short, sharp, loud scenes, the show immediately thrusts itself into the faces of the audience and screams at us to get ready for the ride. It’s brash, it’s unapologetic, and it’s going to say what it has to say. There will be no resistance.
Each character is distinct, and though the show moves swiftly between realism and absurdity, the actors work as a well-rehearsed team, and never miss a beat. Cleverly, each character is annoying in their own way: Scheherazade (of Middle Eastern descent) is loud and energetic, anarchistic and, erm… dyslexic. Sara (looks Indian) starts cold and disinterested, and Sarah (very white and very English) is the anxious, interfering, but well-meaning busy body. For a play that packs such an outspoken punch, it’s also very funny, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments, where even the most stony-faced audience member could not stifle a guffaw.
The show moves into the assessment room when each character is called. As a result, the three actors take turns in playing the assessor, whose character is denoted by a headscarf. The cast are not distracted by this, and manage to remain true to their main characters while at the same time conveying a disinterested bureaucratic pen-pusher. Excellent and believable performances all around.
This is an important and very real story which needs to be told. The promotional blurb says that Octopus is “…set in a dystopian world of bureaucratic box ticking and absurd interviews”, but it is not clear whether that dystopian world is fictional or real, futuristic or contemporary. The problem with our current bureaucracy, of course, is that it’s very difficult to establish the difference between satire and reality, which is perhaps more to blame for this than the efforts of this very talented writer. That said, the play itself does not care whether it is real or fictional, for it remains believable throughout. Whether the intricate details of each scene are factually correct or not, the play conveys a common feeling within foreign nationals in the UK right now.
The scarce set means that the lighting and sound states play an important role in contributing to the feeling of the piece. Each scene change is highly choreographed, and a custom-written soundtrack by Serafina Steer adds to the feeling of chaos and disorder. Punk, rock, reggae and dance songs are more demolished, smashed up and stuck back together with PVA glue than remixed, and occasionally a cast member sings into a microphone. Many moments of hilarity come from this disorder, creating a deranged and frenzied atmosphere.
There truly is no hiding place for the audience. The dialogue, although occasionally unwieldy, leaves you in no doubt as to what the writer is trying to tell you: we’re being dehumanised by an inhumane system, and we’ve got more in common than sometimes we realise. I heard all sorts of sounds coming from the audience around me – gasps of shock, inappropriate laughter (followed by a lower of the head in embarrassment once they’d “got it”), sharp intakes of air as truths were revealed. Whatever your opinion on the subject matter, you will leave reassured that you do have one.
Octopus picks you up, beats you up, shouts at you, screams in your ear, nibbles at your eyelids, swallows you whole, spits you out and then kicks you in the ribs on the way down. It’s a ride. If you’re looking for a comfortable evening’s entertainment, or something with a subtle hidden meaning, this might not be for you. If you’re a thrill-seeker: climb on in, hold tight, and enjoy the ride.