Octopolis review – cerebral romcom about two humans and an octopus

At the centre of this play of ideas about animal consciousness is a three-way relationship between two humans and one octopus.

Professor George Grey (Jemma Redgrave) is a celebrated behavioural biologist, in mourning for her recently dead husband. All she has for company is an octopus named Frances that she has written academic papers about. Harry (Ewan Miller) is an anthropologist out to prove his rather far-fetched thesis that octopuses can engage in acts of worship and abide by belief systems, just like humans. So he inserts himself into George’s life, as well as Frances’s.

Marek Horn’s script walks an original if sometimes wobbly line between cerebral debate and playfulness. The initial setup feels like a pretext to air arguments on faith, intelligence and being. George and Harry’s intellectual sword-fighting is filled with emphatic one-upmanship and some of the debates sound too free-floating.

The script takes gradual hold in the human drama though: the pair’s awkward romance is subtly rendered by both performers and there is a lovely moment of contact with Frances when Harry puts his arm in the tank.

The playfulness rises through crisp and surprising humour as well as musical interludes when the pair dance flirtatiously. At first this seems like a slightly too British take on Pulp Fiction’s iconic twist but it loosens and becomes gawkily joyous.

In a production directed by Ed Madden, both characters narrate but it becomes clear that while they are trying to wrest control of the story, it is their relationship that is under the bell jar rather than the octopus they are there to study. The timorous Frances, meanwhile, who we never see, is tenderly evoked, swimming in a gigantic, opaque tank at the back of the stage in Anisha Fields’s clean, effective set design. Movement is suggested through jets of foam and her changes of mood revealed in vivid changes of colour, from cool blues to sunshine oranges.

The play’s final revelation renders Harry’s position too unethical, and dishonest, for the romance to feel true, but it is an interesting and odd play with two charismatic leads who work hard to make its emotions believable. It works best as a grownup campus romcom, with profound and complex ideas about consciousness and intelligence bolted on.