Martin McDonagh’s latest play is very very very strange even for those who have seen and enjoyed his previous work on stage. 

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All of Martin McDonagh’s distinctive traits in his writing are in full evidence in his latest play – so why on earth doesn’t it quite work as well as his previous work? Having sat through A Very Very Very Dark Matter, you sense that the playwright is as ambitious as ever – but in this story it doesn’t quite pay off to full effect.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is centred around the idea that Hans Christian Anderson (Jim Broadbent) did not in fact write his own stories and relies on the work of Marjory (Johnetta Eula’ Mae Ackles) – a woman he keeps locked in a box in his attic. But while for the most part the story is straightforward – but McDonagh’s trademark violence and references to King Leopold II’s horrifying actions in Congo don’t quite merge well together in the plot overall.

It is a real shame because throughout Matthew Dunster’s chillingly atmospheric production, the audience gets full commitment from all  of the cast through their performances that gives McDonagh’s writing real life, allowing the black sense of humour to really shine through. This is particularly showcased to great effect when Anderson reveals he has brought Marjory’s sister back with him after a trip to London to visit Charles Dickens.

Full credit must be given to Dunster for trying to highlight the many different themes that come through in the play such as racism and oppression. But because there are so many different elements to concentrate on the production can lack focus – not helped by the constant contrast between the tones of the play from the bleakness of Marjory’s life in the attic to a more light hearted approach in Anderson’s visit to Charles Dickens in London – the production never feels as though it is fully on solid ground. In particular it is never truly made clear the relevance of Barry and Dirk who are finally dealt with unexpectedly by Marjory and don’t really add anything to the overall story.

However, despite this the bluntness of McDonagh’s writing is reflected well through the production, challenging the audience and allowing to apply some of the ideas expressed and based in the past to modern times. In particular, when Anderson makes a racist remark he tries to justify it in a charming way or brush it off completely – similar to the way people today when confronted about their racist comments would instantly get defensive and defend their actions by saying ‘but I’m not a racist honest’. It makes the audience sit up and think about attitudes now and whether we have come any further along in getting rid of discrimination.

This is helped by Anna Fleischle’s wonderfully gothic and creepy set design and Philip Gladwell’s enchanting and effective lighting design, that really captures key moments of the play well.

But where Matthew Dunster’s production is most successful is drawing out a strong chemistry between all of the cast, drawing out some charismatic performances. In particular, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory gives a powerful performance as a woman entrapped but her spirit strong and always willing to challenge Hans. Her chemistry with Jim Broadbent as Hans is spot on, with their conversations together a real highlight. Broadbent is daft and bumbling, filled with self-importance but almost too charming to believe that he would keep Marjory locked up in this way. Phil Daniels as the exasperated and foul mouthed Charles Dickens is a delight to watch as he begins to explode over the way Hans outstays his welcome. All of the performances are lively and interesting to watch.

This is not a piece that is going to suit everyone’s tastes. It is vulgar and blunt – but this is standard Martin McDonagh territory and those familiar with his work will already expect this but is still full of surprises in terms of the way it is presented. It is in need of more work to give the play more focus and clarity in its plot (had it purely focused on Anderson’s need for power and influence it would have been stronger), but in terms of challenging and shocking audiences  A Very Very Very Dark Matter definitely does that.

By Emma Clarendon 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter continues to play at the Bridge Theatre until the 6th January 2019. For more information and to book tickets visit: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-very-very-very-dark-matter/

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐