An octopus is a creature of many parts. In this smart, politically-charged comedy from emerging company Fine Mess, it becomes a many-limbed metaphor for the complex mix of genes, geography and family histories that make up our identities.
Set in a post-Brexit, post-Scottish independence rUK where every citizen must prove their Britishness, the play follows three women from diverse backgrounds. Shuttled between a featureless waiting room and a series of interviews with a humourless, merciless government clerk, they make small talk, bicker and finally begin to bond.
Afsaneh Gray’s script is snappy and witty, counterbalancing the tricky subject matter with a hefty measure of daft humour. There’s more than a hint of autobiography here too, especially in the character of half-Iranian, half-Jewish Scheherazade (Dilek Rose) – storyteller, punk and maker of revolutionary tapestries.
A tentative, almost brittle opening thankfully gathers pace as the performers get warmed up. It certainly helps when Rose – in torn union jack tights and a home-made Slits T-shirt – grabs a mic and starts thrashing around with attitude and abandon. From there, director Pia Furtado works things up to a breathless pace. While the show is occasionally chaotic, all the singing, scrabbling about and overlapping dialogue certainly provides a rapid pulse.
Rebecca Oldfield provides many of the laughs as thoughtless hipster Sarah. Tying herself in knots trying ever so hard to prove how liberal she is, she ends up being constantly patronising, constantly just a little bit racist.
It’s Alexandra D’Sa who really stands out, though, as accountant Sara – earning a good wage, ‘putting in more than she takes out’ and staunchly supporting the government’s stringent measures. As the play goes on, her veneer of frosty professionalism is slowly eroded, first by her inane companions, and then by the compounded layers of unfairness of the whole situation. When she finally snaps, it’s a moment of pure farce, an outraged meltdown reminiscent of Basil Fawlty. ‘You haven’t even offered me a crisp!’ she sputters at the impassive interviewer, midway through a rant about institutional racism.
Composer Serafina Steer has created a rich, jagged soundscape to accompany the action, where distorted snatches of songs emerge from white noise and crunchy guitar riffs. Sometimes it’s a wordless, lyrical chant. Other times it’s a scrap from Mary Poppins or the Spice Girls. Though it may sound like a radio being constantly retuned, this fragmentary approach never feels jarring. Instead, it’s a natural fit for the dislocated, dissonant world of the play.
While the show dips into the polemic from time to time, it consciously avoids easy assumptions and neat categorisations. It all builds to a gloriously messy conclusion, as the three protagonists reject the very notion of homogeneous conformity.
This is a story built on complex issues – about the unresolvable, ever-changing nature of identity. In a time when the debate around race and nationality is increasingly characterised by knee-jerk responses and harmful rhetoric, Octopus feels both remarkably timely and refreshingly raw.