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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Bridge Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2018

Martin McDonagh builds his new play on a handful of jokes, each repeated enough times to fill up the eighty minutes and even leave a bit of space for the play to be about something.

They're pretty good jokes, at least the first couple of times you encounter them, though they do begin to wear thin after a while. 

McDonagh starts with the comic revelation that beloved storyteller Hans Christian Andersen is an egotistical booby who keeps an African pygmy woman locked in a cage from which she writes all his tales, his contribution limited to a little editing, like making 'The Little Black Mermaid' more commercially viable. 

We will subsequently learn that Charles Dickens had his own captive pygmy ghostwriter, whose death left 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' unfinished. 

Andersen visits Dickens (who he repeatedly and to decreasing comic effect insists on calling Darwin), leading to the double jokes that his very imperfect mastery of English means that the two cannot communicate and his denseness means that he significantly overstays his welcome, to his hosts' mounting exasperation.

(If that rings any distant memory bells, the same visit and same comic premises were the core of Sebastian Berry's play Andersen's English at the Hampstead Theatre in 2010.) 

By far the most extended running gag, and the one that runs out of steam most quickly, is having everyone in the play make very liberal use of a very small repertoire of standard four-letter obscenities. 

Let me be clear I have no moral objection to obscenities. But their overuse is just lazy, unimaginative and eventually boring. 

We are meant to find it hilarious and perhaps do the first or second time that Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens use 'fucking' as an all-purpose adjective like twenty-first-century teenagers, and even funnier that Victorian Mrs. Dickens does as well. (She also uses it as a verb in complaining about her husband's supposedly epic-quantity infidelities.) 

Almost lost in all this is the play's serious point. Andersen's pygmy is, we are told, a time-traveller returned from the not-too-distant future to prevent a Belgian genocide in the Congo and just killing time writing the fairy tales until the right moment. (Side note: she evidently fails, as history records as many as ten million killed later in the century) 

And this calls our awareness to the realisation that Andersen's callous imprisonment, mutilation and exploitation of her (and Dickens's of his captive) is a metaphor for nineteenth-century Europe's casual abuse of its empires and non-white colonial 'subjects'. 

Martin McDonagh takes the long way round to make an anti-racist statement, but he does get it made. 

It is always a delight to spend any time in the company of Jim Broadbent, and his jolly, completely un-self-aware Andersen is a great comic creation. In her first professional role Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles impressively holds the stage and the moral high ground as the African.

No one else is really given much opportunity to register, even Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington as the Dickenses limited to supporting straight-man roles.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A Very Very Very Dark Matter - Bridge Theatre 2018

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