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London Theatre Reviews

AN UNSETTLING MIX

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

Martin McDonagh's latest work is a disjointed, dispiriting, sloppily structured, deeply disappointing farrago.

Martin McDonagh is currently the most original and exciting voice in British theatre. With Stoppard, Hare, Ayckbourn and Bennett seemingly past their prime, and with Caryl Churchill turning miniaturist, plays such as The Beauty Queen of Lenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, Hangmen and my personal favourite The Cripple of Inishmaan, he generates a boldness and originality, both in the themes he explores and the theatricality with which he expresses them, that is never less than thrilling. The anticipation with which I approach any new work of his is unmatched by any other contemporary British dramatist. 
 
Therefore, it really pains me to report that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a very very very bad play that, had it been written by someone of lesser reputation, would have been rejected after the first five pages. Not to mince words, it’s a puerile black comedy whose distant echoes of Inishmore and Pillowman evoke uncomfortable comparisons that will leave his admirers bothered and bewildered but certainly not bewitched.
 
The central character is Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent), Denmark’s most celebrated writer. Biographical excavations have revealed Hans to be a victim of child abuse, sexually ambiguous (he was attracted to both sexes though remained celibate all his life) and a chronic narcissist forever seeking praise and adulation.
 
McDonagh mischievously embroiders these basics by also making him a foul-mouthed racist who has somehow managed to kidnap a Congolese pygmy, one of whose legs he has chopped off, and whom he has confined to a small wooden box in his attic. Though her real name is Mbute Masekele, Andersen calls her Marjory (Johnetta Eula’MaeAckles) and keeps her alive for one reason: She’s the real author of all the famous fairy tales he shamelessly claims to have written.
 
It doesn't end there. Sometime in the future Marjory, as if she doesn’t have enough problems of her own, is determined to revenge the deaths of the 10 million Congolese victims of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Belgians when they ruled the Congo in the 1880s. Thus the subject of colonialism, underlined by the occasional appearances of a pair of ghostly, blood-splattered time-travelling Belgian soldiers, enters McDonagh’s unsettling mix.
 
Though little biographical credence is in evidence throughout this self-consciously surreal 90-minute mish-mash, one incident really did happen. In 1857 Andersen overstayed his welcome by about four weeks when he visited Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and his family at Gad’s Hill Place. In this version of events – which is more like a sub-Monty Python sketch – Andersen insists on calling Dickens Darwin, a lame running joke unworthy of McDonagh, who has also given potty-mouths to Dickens and his wife Catherine. (“Come children,” says Mrs. D to her kids, “your father’s being a cock.”)
 
Furthermore, there is, quite literally, a skeleton in the great English author’s cupboard. Like Marjory, it also turns out to be a Congolese pygmy (called Pam) who, we learn, is the real author of novels like Bleak House. “I helped with the title,” admits Dickens sheepishly, “the one about the house ... that was a bit bleak.” Groan-making humour on this under-graduate level abounds, not to mention the smut quotient. It’s as if McDonagh is provocatively seeing just how far he can go and how offensive he can be. And what point is he making about plagiarism?
 
“You could call it a puzzle or you could call it a poem,” an unseen narrator (a grizzle-voiced Tom Waits) informs us as the play opens. That’s the easy way out. What it really is is a disjointed, dispiriting, sloppily structured, under-characterised, intellectually challenged, deeply disappointing farrago whose only redeeming features are that it’s short, has an atmospheric, appropriately creepy set by Anna Fleischle, is directed with flashy theatricality by Matthew Dunster, and boasts a breezy, anything-for-a-laugh performance from Broadbent, who appeared to have a lot more fun than I did.