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A Very Very Very Dark Matter review
By Martin McDonagh, Directed by Matthew Dunster
Bridge Theatre, London SE1 2SG
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Booking through to January 6, 2019: Buy Tickets
So this is about how Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales weren't written by him but by actually a minute Congolese lady he kept imprisoned in a 3 foot cage in his attic for 16 years!
Now that I've got your attention, it's sufficient to say that Martin McDonagh’s new play, which is being premiered at Nicholas Hytner's Bridge Theatre, is not a piece that troubles itself much with veracity.
Actually following on from the Glenn Close movie The Wife and the biopic of Colette (whose husband claimed authorship of all her early work), this seems to continue a current trend about women denied their authorship by dastardly males. The resemblances end there however.
Being about a fabulist, McDonagh uses Andersen's story as a starting off point for a totally scabrous, foul mouthed and side splittingly funny skewering of various sacred cows – veneration of literary greats, notions of victimhood or ideas about proper historical representation. We see Andersen getting lauded by his adoring public, returning to his home to deal with his 'secret' and then heading off for a trip to England to meet up with Charles Dickens, whom he has heard has a similar arrangement.
Like in most McDonagh, the idiom is jarringly modern and it's the idiom of a particular subset of young males steeped in casual violence and the nonchalant, macho, swagger of a Tarantino or a Bruce Willis movie. Mrs Dickens' startled reaction to a bit of news is "You're shitting me"! The tone might be witty under graduate smart aleck but it does make you question how we frame stories and how as audiences we coalesce around received ideas about what is the proper way to present a story.
Jim Broadbent is a delight as the shallow, selfish and lazy Andersen basking in his spotlight and cynical about all else. A very modern take on celebrity. He manages to make Andersen appealing despite the occasional lapses into sadism. McDonagh, like Brecht, doesn't let you get cosy for an instant. To great comic effect Broadbent delivers his lines with the flat, drollery of cockney comedian Paul Merton.
McDonagh attempts to explore the genesis of Andersen's horribly macabre ideas. He links Andersen's Gothic imagination to contemporaneous events in the Belgian Congo, then suffering appallingly under an imperialist terror and the Woman in the Attic is the link. Kundai Kanyama's triumph in the role is that we don't pity her for a second. She commands the stage from a low position.
While the plot may not be earthbound, Anna Fleischle's rigorous period designs certainly are and they serve to give the satire more edge exactly because they are so exquisitely accurate.
Running just 90 mins without an interval, the production is like a lovingly polished mosaic. Every element: direction (by Matthew Dunster), performances, design couldn’t be bettered and yet the whole fails to take flight. Scenes start with great possibility but fizzle out. Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington are both hilarious as Mr and Mrs Dickens but you wish they had more to do. It is rare to want a play to be longer but this could have done with more flesh on its bones.
Finally, although this has children and Jim Broadbent in jolly mode as Hans Christian Andersen and it runs through Christmas, it is definitely NOT one for all the family, unless of course your Gran is even more foul mouthed than you are.