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A CurtainUp London Review
A Very Very Very Dark Matter

"You could call it a puzzle, or you could call it a poem . . . ."
— Voice over
A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles as Marjory and Jim Broadbent as Hans Christian Andersen
(Manuel Harlan)
Martin McDonagh reached international importance with his film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri although theatre goers know him better for the Inishmore/Inishman series of plays. In A Very Very Very Dark Matter is returning to one of his themes in The Pillowman (review here), that of the relationship between a writer's experience and the terrible background to some fairy tales for children which are full of spine tingling horror. It is in this century, that from Scandinavia, some bleak detective fiction is serialised on television. Matthew Dunster directs this play which despite its dark surroundings has much to laugh at.

We first meet Andersen (Jim Broadbent) in an award ceremony in the open air for the reception of his latest tale of The Little Mermaid where all the girls come with blonde ringlets in pretty dresses, the men are suited and uniformed and the red and white Danish flag dominates and there are fireworks. A journalist (Paul Bradley) tries to interview Hans Christian Andersen and comes to a sticky end. When we return to Andersen's dark house full of secrets and Anna Fleischle's beautifully detailed set of his home in Copenhagen, hanging with puppets, we realise that some of these are the creatures who people his fairy tales.

In a barred box suspended from the rafters lives Marjory (Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles). This remarkable American actor is making her very assured stage debut here in London. Marjory has one leg (as does Johnetta Eula'Mae) and we are told that Andersen cut off her right foot. She is playing a pygmy from the Congo and it is her stories that Andersen is adapting and publishing, and why he keeps her locked up so he can plagiarise her writing.

When Marjory speaks we hear this deeply resonating North American growl. At first I thought it was Leonard Cohen but then he died recently, so of course the other contender is the magnificent Tom Waits. Of course her tale of capture and enslavement by the writer is a stretch too far to be entirely believable and that allows us to laugh at her indignation that Andersen has changed the ethnicity of the little mermaid in his version of her story.

Though McDonagh promised us a very very very dark matter but I found it impossible to let the convivial Jim Broadbent be anything except affable on this occasion. There is a wonderful moment when a letter comes from the King of the Spaniards complaining to Andersen about the portrayal of the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes saying that the king wouldn't reveal such personal pieces of his anatomy as "his cock and balls".

Two blood soaked Belgian soldiers with vast sewn up body scars represent the killing in the Congo, most of which happened after Andersen's death in case we had forgotten the imperial responsibility for slaughter in Africa.

Andersen goes on a visit to London to another writer, but muddling the names of Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, which Dickens finds annoying from his guest. Dickens (Phil Daniels) is seen in the midst of his Victorian family with his hugely crinolined wife Catherine (Elizabeth Berrington) who is constantly referring to her husband's infidelity. Andersen overstays his welcome and there is much merriment as the Dickens family endeavour to make him go home.

While in London Dickens discovers Ogechi (Kundai Kanyama), Marjory's twin has been similarly supplying plot lines to Charles Dickens. Is there a message here that 19th Century fictional writers were stealing traditional tales from the African continent?

I loved Broadbent's bonhomie, was amazed at Johnetta Eula'Mae's acting ability and enjoyed Phil Daniel's portrayal of Dickens. I had a thoroughly good 90 minutes enjoying the humour in McDonagh's play and what a pleasure it is not to have to take theatre really seriously!
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A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles, Paul Bradley, Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington and Tom Waits as the voice of the Narrator
With: Kundai Kanyama, Lee Knight, Graeme Hawley, Ryan Pope, Jamie McKie, Alice Selwyn, Anthony Taylor, Audrey Hayhurst/Amelia Walter/Annabelle Westenholz-Smith, Regan Garcia/Leo Hart/Austin Taylor, Alistair Benson/Noah Brignull/James Roberts
Design: Anna Fleischle
Sound Design: George Dennis
Music: James Maloney
Lighting Design: Philip Gladwell
Illusions: Chris Fisher
Fight Director: Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown for RC-Annie Ltd
Video Design: Finn Ross
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0333 320 0051
Booking to 6th January 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th October 2018 performance at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SG (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)
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