What were you doing during lockdown? Were you perhaps on the hunt for a job? Or were you busy being driven mad by the isolation? Both apply to Annabel (Anna Chessher), the protagonist of The Octopus. Clicking through endless applications and CV templates, she is slowly but surely being swallowed by the black hole that is the internet. And perhaps it is a good thing that it was her and not you.
The Octopus is Gabriel Jones’s new, self-directed one-woman show The Octopus to the King’s Head Theatre as part of their Playmill festival. It touches upon the theme of sanity (or insanity) in isolation, but that is not the centre-point of the story. The Octopus is about Annabel’s obsession with one particular video that she comes across in the deep end of the internet, during one of her fanatic procrastination sessions.
“A small, crying man pulling an octopus out of a piano playing man’s bumhole” is a short summary of Annabel’s favourite video. Strangely intrigued by it, she decides to let us, the audience (who appear to take on the role of her YouTube channel viewers), in on her fascination with the “performance art”. Instead of going into a long debate concerning what art is and where it has its limits, she decides to create a tribute video – a cover of the original, outdated version from 2009. The actual video as well as her interpretation of it are left to the audience’s imagination, but what is performed as part of The Octopus is Annabel becoming the face of a fetish dating app, her mental breakdown being shown on daytime TV, getting sued by PETA, and of course finding out the true story of the original octopus video. Does that sound a bit strange to you? Well, it is.
Bathrobe-wearing Annabel makes the black box theatre her home and we get to watch as her sanity slowly crumbles. Chessher, on the other hand, thrives in the story. After the first ten minutes of the show, which lacks not only presence but also volume, her performance falls more and more into place. Equipped with a chair, mobile phone and the suggestive plastic bag, she moves through the space which she turns into: her bedroom, a film studio, and the void of the world wide web. Time jumps and scene changes are marked by penetrative telephone rings and the octopus… well no, that’s not there (thankfully).
The Octopus – a scurrile comedy – drips with overly forced toilet humour, Nazi jokes, and a one-dimensional portrayal of unemployment. Personally, I do not enjoy the abhorrent scurrility and would consider Annabel indeed “a young woman in need of validation”. However, everybody’s sense of humour is different and perhaps the story of a woman pulling a (dead) octopus out of her behind is considered “performance art” by some comedy specialist or other.
The Octopus is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 15 July 2021. For more information and tickets visit The King’s Head Theatre’s website.