Ten-tickled - Jack Milner & Mark Stevenson talk Octopus Soup!

Posted on 4 January 2019

What do you get if you cross a disastrous presentation, a bungled burglary and an escaping octopus? The answer, according to comedy writing duo Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson, is not just a witty punchline, but a full-length, razor-sharp stage comedy that’s set to open at the Belgrade Theatre this February.

Cast in the mould of instant classics like The Play That Goes Wrong and One Man, Two Guv’nors, Octopus Soup! is built around unlikely pairings – whether it’s belt-and-braces insurance man Seymour ( Nick Hancock ) striking up a deal with his hopeless burglar Marvin ( Paul Bradley ), the strange spark between their respective bosses, corporate bigwig Virginia and crime boss Alan, or even the partnership between the co-writers themselves.

Octopus Soup read through

“It all started after I enrolled on one of Jack’s Introduction to Stand-up Comedy courses,” explains Mark – a writer, broadcaster, author, entrepreneur and “reluctant futurist” whose published books include We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World and An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.

“My ‘day job’ as a futurist involves communicating quite complex ideas, so I decided I’d learn the tricks of the trade in the hope that it would help me to communicate better. After I went on Jack’s course, we stayed friends and kept in touch.

“Prior to doing this play, I’d actually sold a sitcom that I co-wrote with one of the other people who took the course, so my agent suggested to me that it might be a good idea to do more writing with other people. At that point, I didn’t really know many writers other than Jack, so I contacted him and we decided to write a play together – even though I’d never done anything professionally for the stage before!”

Octopus Soup read through

Truth, they say, is often stranger and sillier than anything the mind of a comedian could invent, and so despite its zany set-up, it may not come entirely as a surprise that the story of Octopus Soup! has some grounding in reality, inspired by an ill-fated pitching process that turned into the presentation that goes wrong.

“We both had to pitch some work with a big software company via a sort of webcast – Mark was doing a talk and I was running a team-building exercise,” says Jack. “Lots of things went wrong – mostly on the tech side. Although I think the one bit that was okay was Mark’s presentation!”

“So that experience led us to discussing the worst thing that could possible happen during a presentation,” adds Mark, “It wasn’t long before we hit upon being burgled, beaten and tied up as the perfect disaster, and that became the original spark behind Octopus Soup!”

Octopus Soup read through

“But rather than doing what you’d normally do with something like this, which is let the tension build up for about 20 minutes or so, we decided to start right in the midst of it all,” says Milner. “So it’s just, like – bam! Within three minutes this terrible presentation and attempted burglary have already happened. We start with maximum jeopardy and it keeps going at crazy high stakes from there.”

So far, so logical – but where does the octopus come in?

“That’s Jack’s fault, too,” laughs Mark. “This is actually the second play we’ve written together (the first one very nearly went into production, but didn’t quite get there), and the way we write is that we come up with some ideas, go away to a cottage for a week and make sure we come home with the first draft of a play.

Octopus Soup read through

“This time, I think we got to about Wednesday or even halfway through Thursday and got a bit stuck. So Jack being the creative expert that he is, said that when you get stuck, the one thing to do is to throw in something random, because even if you don’t end up using it, it frees you up to new ways of thinking. In this case, his suggestion was an octopus – little did we know it would end up being the crucial ingredient of the whole play.

“We have three rules for writing together,” he continues. “The first is that we go away and we write for a full week. We start with a blank page and we have to have a play written by the time we come back, because we’re both very busy and it wouldn’t get done otherwise. Obviously that’s just the first draft, but it gets us out of the starting blocks rather than staring at our writerly navels.

Octopus Soup read through

“Number two is that we only write things that make each other laugh. We’re not trying to do things with a particular audience in mind. Writing has to be its own reward, so that even if it never goes anywhere, we don’t feel like we wasted a week because we had a good time. And then – what was the third one?”

“Going out for beers,” offers Jack.

“Well anyway,” says Mark. “There was another one, but I can’t remember it.”

“No, that was it!” Jack insists.

“Maybe the last rule is that we resolve to write a third rule…” says Mark, undeterred.

Octopus Soup read through

“I think part of why our partnership works and why we’re not stepping on each other’s toes is because I don’t come from a theatre background, so the aim is ust to make each other laugh, and we are very generous with each other,” he continues.

The pair clearly get on like a house on fire, as the saying goes – though hopefully the sparks are a little less fiery than Jack’s mum, whose history with the Belgrade Theatre isn’t exactly typical!

Octopus Soup read through

“About 40 years ago, my mum very nearly burned down the Belgrade!” he reveals. “At that time it still had the flats on-site where the actors stayed, and she was performing in a Shakespeare play, I think. One day, one of the cast members got very drunk, and my mum suggested they sleep it off in her room.

“Unfortunately, this woman decided to start cooking while she was in this state, and the whole room ended up having to be completely gutted. But thankfully they didn’t hold it against her and she got to work there again!”

Fingers – and tentacles – crossed that’s one performance there won’t be a repeat of!

Octopus Soup! makes its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre 2-16 February 2019. Tickets are available to book now.

Octopus Soup read through