Review – A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, 27th October 2018

A Very Very Very Dark MatterA new play by Martin McDonagh? Starring Jim Broadbent? That’ll do nicely, thank you. But what’s this? Unofficial feedback from a number of sources saying the play’s an absolute stinker? Surely some mistake? That was, at least, the early reaction from some quarters. Others were saying how bold and brilliant it was. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I concluded it was going to be one of those plays that you either love with a passion or hate with even more passion. And I think that conclusion was right.

VVVDM3Meet Hans Christian Andersen, at the top of his powers; receiving fan mail from around the world, reading his latest stories to an admiring public, and getting richly rewarded in the process. So who would have thought that his stories were actually written by a pygmy Congolese woman he kept locked up in a cage? I know, it doesn’t sound likely. Don’t get me wrong, he does let her out occasionally – although the deal seems to be that if she’s let out, when she gets back inside, he has configured it so that the cage has become slightly smaller for her. Does that seem fair? But then, is it fair that he takes all the plaudits for her work? True, he does edit her stories; he tweaked The Little Black Mermaid, for example, by removing a significant word from the title, much to her disappointment. His justification? There are no black mermaids. Her retort – that there are no mermaids! – carries little weight with him. The woman – called Marjory, because he can’t be bothered to learn her real name – also appears to be tied up with some kind of Congolese resistance movement against the brutal Belgian colonisation of her homeland. Of course, the Congo Free State was founded ten years after Hans Christian Andersen died. And of course, Charles Dickens is mixed up in all of this too. Well, why not? I’m sensing allegory here. Confused? You will be.

VVVDM2It’s as though Martin McDonagh has got together the threads of three or four plays – one about Andersen, one about Dickens, one about the Congo and one about plagiarism – thrown them all up in the air at once, and then stitched them together where they landed. It can’t possibly work, can it? Strangely, by virtue of some great performances, cunning characterisation, hilarious scenes and sheer bravado, it does; but if you ask me how, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you.

VVVDM1Jim Broadbent’s performance as Andersen certainly helps. No happy-go-lucky Danny Kaye type here. He’s a gurning, miserable, grouchy old sod; casually racist – against everyone, mind, even the Danes, and certainly the Belgians; irrepressibly vain (if he receives a letter that doesn’t praise him to the skies, he thinks the writer is selfish; if they do praise him, he thinks they’re after something), grotesquely cruel, and – bizarrely – child-hating. Despite all that, somehow he gets the audience on his side. There’s quite a lot of fourth wall breaking – only minor moments, but always when he’s appealing to us to agree with him about something – and, in some challenging way, you can’t help liking the irascible old git. Probably because it’s Jim Broadbent.

VVVDM4There are two or three fabulously funny scenes where he invites himself to stay with Charles Dickens and his family for weeks on end, outstaying his welcome from the word go. McDonagh characterises Dickens as a foul-mouthed oaf with a bad temper – Phil Daniels captures this beautifully – and provides him with a sweet-looking but almost as crude wife and kids, and their family exchanges are toe-curlingly delightful. You just don’t expect Mrs Catherine Dickens (Elizabeth Berrington on fine form) to come out with lines like “you’re shitting me?” and “I’m leaving you, and taking one of the children with me.” Dickens also has a very very very dark secret, but I’ve got to hold back on some spoilers.

VVVDM7Despite racism being a very powerful theme in this story, McDonagh’s writing and construction keep all the content just on the safe side of acceptable; for example, when the Belgian redmen (you’ll have to see the play to understand who they are) break in to Andersen’s house and give Marjory some chips, naturally they are covered in mayo. She’s not impressed. I think I’m a reasonably PC kind of guy but I surprised myself by never being offended by this play – and I had fully expected to be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells about this – which I think is a smart trick on McDonagh’s part.

VVVDM5There’s also a funny and moving performance by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, on her professional debut. Her facial expressions, her comic timing, and her expressions of pathos are all absolutely spot-on; emotional without ever being maudlin. The character has a sting in her tail and Ms Ackles never holds back from giving us a really gutsy show. The supporting cast are also all excellent; big shout-out to the children on our performance who were delightfully butter-wouldn’t-melt alongside quoting their father’s filthy language; and there’s an excellent cameo scene from Northampton University recent alumna Kundai Kanyama as Marjory’s sister Ogechi – a splendid career awaits I’m sure!

VVVDM6At barely 90 minutes with no interval, this play rattles through at a fast pace and constantly shocks, surprises and upsets you whilst maintaining a mischievous sense of humour throughout. Working on my theory that I’d sooner see a brave failure than a lazy success, there’s nothing lazy about this, nor is it a failure. It’s certainly brave! A Very Very Very Strange, but Entertaining Play!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Curve Studio, Leicester, 26th October 2013

The Beauty Queen of LeenaneAre Martin McDonagh plays like buses? You don’t see any for ages, yet within the space of a few months we’ve seen The Cripple of Inishmaan and now The Beauty Queen of Leenane, currently playing at the atmospheric little Studio theatre at the Curve in Leicester. Like “Inishmaan”, the “Beauty Queen” is a stunningly written, tightly constructed, highly dramatic piece; perhaps not quite a funny as the former, but a whole lot darker too.

Michele MoranIt first appeared in the mid-1990s, set in more or less contemporary County Galway, in the impoverished house of 70 year old Mags and her downtrodden and anger-ridden daughter Maureen, who at the age of 40 has just waited on her mother hand and foot, with no thanks for it and no life as a result. You guess that every attempt that Maureen has ever made to gain some independence has been ruthlessly quashed by her vicious, selfish mother. So when Mags discovers that construction worker Pato, currently working in London, is returning to Leenane for the weekend, she does her best to make sure that Maureen doesn’t hear about it. However, that plan goes astray, Maureen meets Pato, and thus starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy. No more plot details – if you haven’t seen the play, the surprises up Mr McDonagh’s sleeve are well worth concealing.

Nora ConnollyThis is a riveting co-production between the Curve and the Mercury Theatre Colchester, (just like the fantastic Hired Man earlier this year), directed by the Curve’s Artistic Director Paul Kerryson with great feeling for both the tenderness and savageness of the plot. Juliet Shillingford’s set conveys the poverty of Galway twenty years ago with great attention to detail – I loved the cooking range at the back of the set, the 70s/80s style kettle and telephone, the miserable television, the basic radio set. To bring the hostile environment outside into firm focus for the audience, when it rains in Leenane, it rains on stage too – Mrs Chrisparkle and I got a little damp in the front row. It’s uncomfortable, disconcerting, and gives you a very acute sense of reality.

Andrew MacklinThe cast of four hold your attention throughout, each of them giving a fantastic performance. Standing out magnificently is Michele Moran as Maureen, whom we really enjoyed earlier in the year in Dancing at Lughnasa, and who conveys all the character’s pent up emotions with incredible force. The angry victim, the downtrodden drudge, the coquettish virgin, the irritating show-off, the unhinged sufferer, the desperate loner are all aspects of the character that Miss Moran absolutely gets and portrays brilliantly. She’s spectacular in the role, and spectacularly terrifying in many ways too.

The Beauty Queen herselfNora Connolly is the despicable Mags; one can often feel sympathy for a little old lady eking out her final years in loneliness and sadness – but not this little old lady. Manipulative and cruel, the things she does on stage actually make the audience gasp with horror. Nora Connolly makes her irredeemably unpleasant character completely come alive – no pantomime villain this, she is a very real person, and it’s a superb performance.

Stephen HoganWe really enjoyed Andrew Macklin as Pato’s brother Ray; short tempered, not overly intelligent, holding a grudge, and nicely conveying the character’s own mental hang-ups. He speaks his words as though each line is a dagger wound. His second act scene with Maureen was very suspenseful – you kept on thinking that one of them was going to murder the other, but who would it be…? And amongst this nervous-making threesome is Stephen Hogan’s Pato, a refreshingly open, normal bloke who gets caught up in the battle between mother and daughter. I loved his Act Two soliloquy; it really explained what the character was all about and you just knew it was going to pave the way for a melodramatic sad ending. My only criticism of his performance is that when he prepares breakfast for Mags, he knows his way around her kitchen far too well for someone who had never been there before.

It's not going to end well...One very strange experience: there was no applause at the end of the first act. It certainly deserved the traditional pre-interval clapping but you could tell it wasn’t going to materialise so I gamely started it off. I did about fifteen claps but with no one joining in, until Mrs C convinced me I was fighting a losing battle. I think I’ve only experienced that once before, and that was in a very lacklustre play (can’t remember what), but this was an excellent production. I assumed the rather lazy audience just couldn’t be bothered; Mrs C’s opinion was that the audience was so dumbstruck with how horrible the mother was that they couldn’t bring themselves to show any signs of appreciation. Anyway, enthusiastic applause at the end of the play certainly made up for it. It’s a hard-hitting production of a fascinating play that you carry on discussing days afterwards. Not an easy watch – disturbing and shocking in many respects – but horrifically good.