The week in theatre: Dear Octopus; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Just for One Day – review

<span>Lindsay Duncan and Malcolm Sinclair in the ‘perfectly pitched’ Dear Octopus.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Lindsay Duncan and Malcolm Sinclair in the ‘perfectly pitched’ Dear Octopus.Photograph: Marc Brenner

Dodie Smith started her career as a successful playwright before the second world war. Dear Octopus was first performed in 1938. She wrote the novels for which she is known – The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle – years later. It’s easy to see why her nuanced play, her sixth, is seldom performed: it is an amusing but almost eventless portrait of a family across three generations, gathered for a golden wedding anniversary. What it needs is a tip-top, fastidious, perfectly pitched production and, with director Emily Burns at the National, this is precisely what it gets.

What unfolds is an extraordinary evening of domestic time travel – a marvel – in which we are taken back to the 30s and into a grand English house outside Birmingham with sage green walls (elegant design by Frankie Bradshaw). The fascination and fun is to see how family life has at once changed and stayed the same. For Smith, family was the octopus from whose tentacles you could never be free.

This production of Dorian Gray sends up the novel’s seriousness with a vaudeville brashness that borders on madness

Preparations for a party are under way and one of the grandchildren insists on rescuing a rose from an otherwise dead bunch of flowers: “Things oughtn’t to die before they have had a chance to live,” she sagely observes. How people do – and don’t – take their chances at life is at the heart of this drama, which perceptively explores getting older (Smith was in her early 40s when she wrote it). The inimitable Lindsay Duncan plays Dora, the 70-year-old being celebrated: graceful, controlling, decorously malicious. Kate Fahy is splendid as her ageing rival, offhand about her own efforts at cosmetic updating.

A love story develops in the younger generation, between Dora’s son Nicholas, who shows a boisterous lack of self-knowledge (plausibly played by Billy Howle), and high-strung Fenny, a companion/housekeeper and the human equivalent of the rose needing rescuing (beautifully played by Bessie Carter). The writing is a joy. I loved the amusing speech in which Dora’s husband, Charles (a dignified Malcolm Sinclair), explains that he never fulfilled his ambition to be a member of parliament because there were too many “little jobs” to do round the house: shelves to put up, shelves to take down. In spite of (or because of) this, he is happy. The play is a snapshot of prewar contentment, a living period piece, a tonic for our turbulent times.

Sarah Snook is known as Shiv Roy in HBO’s Succession. Her outstanding performance combined ruthlessness with vulnerability and a simmering mischief, and won her two Golden Globes and an Emmy. And now, for a short run in London’s West End, she is playing Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s doomed narcissist, described in the novel as a “tall, graceful young man” with a “romantic olive-coloured face and worn expression”. The casting is so extravagantly wide of the mark, it intrigues. It is an evening that relies on Snook’s go-to-hell chutzpah as she omnivorously impersonates, with stamina, comic pizazz and vampy camp everyone in the novel (all 26 of them), from poisonous aristocrat Lord Wotton to painter Basil Hallward to Dorian’s jilted lover Sibyl Vane.

First performed by another actor in Sydney in 2020, The Picture of Dorian Gray is exuberantly directed and adapted by Kip Williams. The conceit is to play with screens (today’s canvas) with a riff on the present-day vanity of selfies and smartphone filters. The screen proves mightier than the stage (video design by David Bergman) and Snook is projected larger-than-life, a twinkling cupid, in one incarnation, with auburn bob and smouldering cigar, wallowing in aristo absurdity, sending the novel up in smoke. Make no mistake: this is The Picture of Sarah Snook, her celebrity vehicle, her showcase, a rampageously staged flirtation and so wrong you can almost persuade yourself it is right.

The novel (1891) is a sinister moral tragedy in which Dorian leans towards good but finds evil more powerful. He has been living within a frame from which he cannot break free, on a canvas he did not choose. He has become more concept than man. The portrait he keeps hidden reveals his corrupt deeds. Wilde’s darkest investigation is into Dorian’s yearning for immortal youth. This production undermines the novel’s seriousness, sending it up with a vaudeville brashness that borders on madness. The fatal ending is more an exclamation mark than a sobering response to Wilde’s exquisitely merciless conclusion.

It’s a big ask to turn Live Aid, the landmark fundraising music event across two continents, into theatre – there is no chance of conveying the scale of the 72,000-strong audience at Wembley on 13 July 1985 nor the spontaneous thrills of the headline acts: David Bowie giving it his all, Elton John contributing live-wire energy, Freddie Mercury punching the air in ecstasy. Live Aid was watched by 1.5 billion people worldwide. It raised £150m towards the Ethiopian famine – about £458m in today’s money. It is a shame that, on the Old Vic’s stage, songs seldom run their course but are organised into a bitty collage. But Just for One Day remains an excuse for some great tunes and boasts a fantastic ensemble, tightly directed by Luke Sheppard.

John O’Farrell’s book attempts to see off the danger of being no more than a nostalgiafest by educating younger audiences. But, like many tribute pieces, it proves dangerously safe, its narrative lean. It attempts to be edgy by building in risk factors that no longer have mileage, such as Bob Geldof’s battle to dissuade Margaret Thatcher from hanging on to VAT. Still, Craige Els catches Geldof’s undeceived quality and I was mesmerised by Jo Foster, performing Rebel, Rebel with flamboyant ambiguity: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” Abiona Omonua’s Amara, working for Ethiopia’s Red Cross, sings A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall in such a beautiful voice, I wanted her to sing for ever (cancel the rest of the show, we’ll just stay on and listen).

Star ratings (out of five)
Dear Octopus ★★★★
The Picture of Dorian Gray ★★
Just for One Day ★★★

Dear Octopus is at Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until 27 March
The Picture of Dorian Gray is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 11 May
Just for One Day is at the Old Vic, London, until 30 March