We’re all familiar with many of the works of Hans Christian Andersen, whether in their diluted Disney format or in all their dark & unforgiving glory. But what if he wasn’t the one who actually wrote all of those stories? What if he, and another acclaimed writer of the day, in fact exploited a pair of pygmy twins who have been ripped out of time and place to escape from the impending atrocity in the Congo? This is perhaps only something that could come out of the mind of playwright Martin McDonagh, and he has teamed up with Hangmen director Matthew Dunster to bring A Very Very Very Dark Matter to the Bridge Theatre for a limited run. This 90-minute imagined history stars Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels as the two writers, with narration from the gruff voice of Tom Waits.
While Hans Christian Andersen does public readings of ‘his’ work and takes all the plaudits, Marjory (renamed because Andersen finds her real name impossible to remember) is shut up in a box in his attic, venting her pain and frustration through her writing. All the while, she is being hunted down by a pair of Belgian soldiers who are attempting to prevent her interference in Belgium’s forthcoming massacre in the Congo – though when Andersen accepts an invitation to stay with Dickens in London for a couple of weeks, Marjory is left alone with only a haunted accordion to protect her. Will the future run its terrible course, or will Marjory be able to change it?
If you think all that sounds absolutely mad, then you’d be right. Fans of straightforward, uncomplicated plots should probably steer clear – but anyone who likes a bit of a challenge (and appreciates a lot of swearing) should definitely give it a go. For all its strangeness, it all ties together very well; the time travel element is the only thing that could be a bit clearer, but since when did everything in fairy tales happen for a good reason? As well as taking inspiration from Andersen’s desire to keep the darkness in his stories, it also serves as something of a modern myth. The legends created by ancient civilisations all came about to explain natural phenomena (such as Persephone splitting her time between worlds leading to the change in the seasons), and this one puts forward an explanation of the darkness of these tales – and also why The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains unfinished.
Whether you ascribe any meaning to it or not, it’s full of very funny moments and characterisations which will keep you entertained. Graeme Hawley and Ryan Pope’s Belgian soldiers definitely have more than a whiff of the Chuckle Brothers about them, and I’m always a fan of anachronistic and seemingly uncharacteristic swearing being thrown in; Andersen’s visit to the home of “Charles fucking Dickens” is an absolute gold mine, and a very memorable part of the show. The portrayal of Andersen as casually racist may make some patrons uncomfortable, however as modern readings of some of his work suggest he could have held these views, it’s not completely unreasonable to show him in this light – especially as it comes across in a mostly ‘generational’ kind of way, like your grandparents using a word that wasn’t questioned a few decades ago, but has since been ditched.
Anna Fleischle’s set design works perfectly with the “very very very dark” tone of the play. Most of the action takes places in a creepy attic, made even creepier by the army of puppets that are hanging from every possible spot – as well as Marjory’s fondness for a spider marionette… Philip Gladwell’s lighting design plays a big part in creating a dark & atmospheric piece, and if you’re sat close enough Chris Fisher’s illusions really add to this. There is also great wig work (Susanna Peretz), helping to make Broadbent & Dickens look uncannily like Andersen & Dickens.
Even if you don’t find yourself on board with the content of this play, you can’t deny that there are some fantastic performances from the cast. Jim Broadbent definitely stands out, with great support from Phil Daniels, and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is terrifically good value as Marjory – all three have impeccable comic timing, and really bring their characters to life.
My verdict? A dark & strange imagined history, showing two famed Victorian writers in a new light – Hans Christian Andersen and Charles fucking Dickens as you’ve never seen them before!
A Very Very Very Dark Matter runs at the Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.