Martin McDonagh is a good writer. I have to state this because based on this production at the Bridge Theatre audiences may not be so convinced.
Jim Broadbent stars as Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish storyteller famed for his dark fairy tales aimed at children. McDonagh has a revelation for us, Andersen didn’t write this stories, how could a privileged white man know such darkness? It was a black, Congolese pygmy woman he kept locked in a mahogany box called Marjory played by American actress Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles (of course it was). Ackles shines in her London debut, embracing the bold attitude and physical limitations of the character. Andersen is a sadist, cutting off her foot, making her small even smaller and Broadbent playing him as a cheeky rogue only makes the circumstances darker.
In London, Phil Daniels’s Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine (Elizabeth Berrington) are visited by Andersen, who leaves Marjory enough sausages for two weeks but ends up staying for five, much to the Dickens’ fury. The scenes in London are great and Broadbent’s acting as he struggles with the English language and his own inability to read people is probably one of the finest performances I have seen him in and I would pay good money to see Berrington and Daniels as the tense couple as Dickens spent more time shagging about than writing (Marjory’s sister was his pygmy writer) but there is a real lack of cohesive story here and even if you see it as a Company-style selection of short scenes it fails to not only make much sense (time travel is mentioned in a way that suggests McDonagh used it desperately rather than logically) and actors such as Paul Bradley as the journalist who exposes Andersen and his box are severely underused.
Tom Waits provides a prerecorded narration but again it feels like a desperate use of resources, perhaps better direction by Matthew Dunster would have given a more suitable time and place of the story than Waits announcing parts 1 and 2. The issue is that there is a darkness to this men, Andersen has been described as ‘Perverse’ and Dickens was a known philanderer and there is a whole discussion about it being okay to libel the dead but is defaming a real-life figure in a play ever acceptable, even if it is a fairy tale like as this?
It isn’t always a comfortable watch and those familiar with McDonagh are strapped in and ready for the ride but in this 90-minute play there were walkouts and even the ever offensive and violent McDonagh couldn’t make this feel exciting. He wants to be Djanjo Unchained Tarantino, what he needed was someone to keep him in a box until a better production came out of it.
A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter is on at Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019