A 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.
Meet 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.
It’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.
Jim 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.
There 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.
Despite 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.
There’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!
At 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