Taking it to the extreme

Rating: 4

A very very very dark matter

by Ian Shuttleworth

Hans Christian Andersen luxuriates in his status as a master storyteller, but in fact gets all his stories from a Congolese pygmy woman whom he keeps imprisoned in a glass-fronted box in his attic, with one foot cut off because she once tried to escape. This woman yearns to be reunited with her twin sister, who is likewise the source for Charles Ddickens (whom Andersen keeps calling Darwin), but she – that’s the first pygmy, the one in Andersen's puppet-crammed attic – is also being pursued by a couple of scarlet-skinned, murderous and half-ghostly Belgians... no, wait, doctor, not the straitjacket, or I’ll have to finish typing this with my nose!

If I were to say that a Very Very Very Dark Matter is by Martin McDonagh, most recently famed for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and whose gory Oirish drama the lieutenant of Inishmore I reviewed here a few months ago, you wouldn’t think me any more sane. But McDonagh also wrote the Pillowman, a dark fable, about stories as psychological and political weapons. He likes stories, so writing another, shall we say, extreme piece about how they come to be is natural for him.

The premiere of the Pillowman, at the National Theatre, featured Jim Broadbent, who now comes to Hytner's Bridge Theatre as Hans Christian Andersen. Broadbent has become revered as an actor, but we shouldn’t forget that he first made his name being silly, and he relishes returning to this territory. His Andersen is a casual torturer, true, but, above all, an airy-fairy twerp. McDonagh being McDonagh, there are expletives aplenty in the script, which is likewise a welcome throwback for Phil Daniels: his language is at its saltiest in years as, of all people, Dickens. no, honestly. And a voiceover narration has been recorded by Tom Waits: when he’s the voice of reason, you know you’re not in Kansas any more.

The most controlled, most in-control, character is marjory, the literally dark fount of stories. Johnetta Eula’mae ackles embodies Matthew Dunster’s approach to direction: increasingly loving the wild side, but never sacrificing his natural attentiveness. She also gets some of the most serious content, about the still largely ignored massacres by the belgians in the then Congo Free state in the latter 19th century. The title may even allude to the mysterious invisible stuff that apparently constitutes some 90 per cent of the universe. All that in only 80 minutes. McdDnagh keeps threatening to quit writing for the stage; this pinball-cannoning, psycho jamboree is exactly why we should be glad he hasn’t.

Until 6 January at the Bridge Theatre, London SE1: 0843-208 1847, bridgetheatre.co.uk