No Squidding - Joe Harmston directs the world premiere of Octopus Soup!

Posted on 16 January 2019

Writer and director Joe Harmston has enjoyed an undeniably varied theatrical career. From working with Harold Pinter himself at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998, to directing a whole string of titles for the hugely successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company, his work so far has proved as difficult to pin down as Terry the escaping octopus in his latest production for the Belgrade Theatre, Octopus Soup!

Octopus Soup! is by no means Joe’s first rodeo in Coventry. Since opening his critically acclaimed production of Strindberg’s The Father here in 2012, he has become an Associate Artist at the Belgrade Theatre, working to develop commercial producing partnerships and returning with shows including his original musical with Ray Goudie, The Prodigals: A Man Had Two Sons in 2013, and the world premiere of Jack Milner’s zany comedy The Mummy in 2014.

Octopus Soup rehearsal

While Octopus Soup! sees Joe team up with The Mummy writer again, it’s the first produced play to be penned jointly by Milner with his new comedy writing partner, Mark Stevenson. Opening on Saturday 2 February, the show is a fast-paced farce starring Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley as a failing insurance consultant and the man who tries to burgle him but ends up striking up a dodgy deal with him instead.

Slapstick and silliness may be a long way from Strindberg, but from a director’s point of view, the process of realising them on stage has as many similarities as differences.

“As a director, people often ask you whether you direct drama or comedy, but of course in reality, you approach them all in the same way. The really crucial thing with a farce is that it has to matter dramatically, and what’s great about this story is that the stakes are genuinely very high – all off the characters are facing career-ending moments or fighting for their lives in one way or another.

Octopus Soup rehearsal

“So although you need this technical precision in terms of the pace, the picking up of cues, the staging, you’ve still got to be thinking in terms of the characters and the action – about what matters to the people involved and why they’re acting the way they do. Which is exactly the same as when I was directing The Father or The Prodigals.”

Of course, it helps to surround yourself with a team you know and trust to run with your ideas.

Jack Milner and I have worked together on a number of scripts over a number of years, so I already knew him well. Admittedly, when he and Mark approached me with the first draft of Octopus Soup! and told me they’d written it in a week, I was a bit worried about what it would be like! But even that initial script made me laugh out loud, and since then its been refined and become even funnier.

Octopus Soup rehearsal

“I think one of the reasons it’s worked so well is because of how they bounce off each other as a duo. It’s interesting how many great comedies have been written in that way – if you think about classic TV comedies particularly. If you’re writing by yourself, you can give it to someone else who can say whether they think it’s funny or not, but it’s not the same as having someone else in the room with you who can’t hide their reactions.

“That said, it’s always difficult to know how a comedy is going to work in the early stages because you’ve got to hear it read out loud by actors who are good enough to do it. All of the people we’ve cast are either people who I’ve worked with before or people I’ve known and really wanted to work with for some time. And I have to say, I’m really pleased with the result – I couldn’t have hoped to assemble a better cast.”

Octopus Soup rehearsal

As well as Nick Hancock ( They Think It’s All Over, Room 101 ) and Paul Bradley ( Holby City, EastEnders ), the cast also features Gillian Bevan, Carolyn Backhouse and Eric Richard ( The Bill ). Nevertheless, star billing goes of course to the titular octopus, Terry, who is currently under construction by a puppet-maker in Leeds.

“It’s going to be a very classic, brightly coloured octopus – something like the one in Octopussy. And as you can imagined, there will probably be more than one, because we’re going to need different puppets to be able to do different things.”

Meanwhile, rehearsals are now well underway in London, with the company set to move up to Coventry next week. Joe is looking forward to being back.

Octopus Soup rehearsal

“I’m enormously looking forward to being back because I love the Belgrade and I love Coventry, and I do think the Coventry audience are going to enjoy this show. In fact, one of the things I’m very pleased about is that it will be the first time I’ve done a show on the B2 Stage.

Back when I did The Father in 2012, I remember every time I came over for a meeting with Hamish he wanted to show me the studio, but it wasn’t until we’d agreed that we were going to do The Father in the main house that I actually went in and looked at it. I was expecting just a typical black box, but as soon as I went in, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful!’ I think it’s a really brilliant space and particularly good for a show like this because of the proximity of the audience.”

Octopus Soup! makes its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre 2-16 February ahead of a UK tour. Tickets are available to book now.

Octopus Soup rehearsal