A Very Very Very Dark Matter is actually a very very very accurate description of the content of this play, which is hilarious but very, very, very dark. The latest offering from Martin McDonagh (last year he wrote and directed the Oscar-nomiated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, so you know he’s good) imagines what would have happened if Hans Christian Andersen had kept a Congolese pygmy woman locked up in a tiny wooden box in his attic and used her to ghostwrite all his stories. And yes, there is always the question of why the play imagines this, but it does so in a gorgeously produced and very clever way.
Jim Broadbent’s performance as the twisted misanthrope Andersen is inspired. Racist, appalling, cruel by turns, Broadbent is nevertheless heartily watchable and very entertaining. The chemistry between Broadbent and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles (who plays Marjory, the aforementioned ghostwriter) is fantastic and sharp; a very good thing, as the plot is so convoluted – yes, there’s time travel involved, and ghosts – that the dialogue and characterisation of Andersen and Marjory is the driving force.
The show is very well-cast all round though; Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington give very enjoyable turns as the foul-mouthed Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine, and the two Belgian blood-covered soldiers who pop up every now and then (Graeme Hawley and Ryan Pope) are scene stealers. Tom Waits’ voiceovers are also deliciously sinister.
The design (Anna Fleischle) is both nightmarish and intriguing from the outset; as the audience file in, the terrifying attic space she has created is in darkness, with Marjory’s wooden box swinging like a pendulum from the ceiling. Through the performance, the attic serves as a perfect backdrop to McDonagh’s catalogue of murders, ghosts and human cruelty. It’s also still very refreshing to see video design (by Finn Ross) incorporated so seamlessly into a performance, with some very clever moments throughout the production.
This reimagined history, where Dickens and Andersen are nothing but a couple of awful white parasites, is very on brand for 2018. McDonagh raises an interesting point about the atrocities committed in 19th Century Congo and displays a fantastically diverse and talented cast. Some of the finer points may have been lost in the surrealism somewhere, sure, but fortunately that doesn’t stop this being a very very very good production.