A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre: Jim Broadbent is brilliant as Hans Christian Andersen ★★★★

Martin McDonagh’s dismantling of the Danish master of fairytales is entertaining and provocative, says Nick Wells

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You won’t be able to say you weren’t warned. Even if you’re not familiar with Martin McDonagh’s previous hit plays and films – the deranged cat-loving paramilitaries (The Lieutenant of Inishmore); the psychopaths, indeed, all seven of them (Seven Psychopaths); or the racist, alcoholic police officers (the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) – this time the warning’s right there on the label.

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 His new play, though, is far from the same old fair. Yes, there’s the violence and near-the-knuckle black humour that sees you both laughing and sucking your teeth in equal measure. But A Very Very Very Dark Matter sees him delve into the preternatural realm of the fairy tale – dreams and ghosts included – with absorbing results.

 Jim Broadbent is at his inimitable best as Hans Christian Anderson, the renowned Danish author of numerous children’s tales. We meet him at a public reading of The Little Mermaid, lapping up the praise of an adoring public even as he stumbles over his own story, and showing himself little more than an adulation-seeking braggart. Unbeknown to them, though, he is also a charlatan with a secret. 

 In his attic in which the stage is dressed, he keeps an African Pygmy lady imprisoned in a wooden box hanging from the ceiling. It’s Marjory (the excellent Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles), as he calls her because he’s too lazy to pronounce her native name, rather than Hans, who is turning out the popular books. 

The shadow of colonialism is never far away. McDonagh takes both the idea of the private self behind the public face, and the dark underbelly that lurks just below the surface of fairy tales to explore the indignities of racial prejudice in the 19th century. It might not always be entirely clear – part of the plot involves time-travelling Belgian soldiers and their murderous subjugation of Congo in the future that gets a bit murky – but it is very effective. 

 Phil Daniels puts in a great turn as a philandering and profane Charles Dickens, with whom Hans goes to stay for rather longer than his friend and host can stand. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Queen Vic rather than the home of one of the literary greats, as the barbs fly across the dining table. It’s a stand out scene played perfectly.

 Although ostensibly a comedy, and a very funny one at that, A Very Very Very Dark Matter never lets go of the ill treatment and casual dehumanisation perpetrated by Europeans, especially in the arts and sciences, that’s at the heart of the story. Smart, unusual and masterly performed, it’s entertaining and provocative. It might, though, be one fairy tale you won’t want to share with the kids. 

 Nick Wells

Until 6 January 2019.

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