Brace yourself. Martin McDonagh returns to playwriting for the first time since Hangmen, his phenomenally successful, darkly hilarious 2015 hit. He’s not wasted the intervening years, either – last year, his acclaimed third feature film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri scored seven Oscar nods, eventually winning two.
His new play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, runs at Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s year-old Bridge Theatre until January 6th, in a production that reunites the team behind Hangmen – McDonagh, director Matthew Dunster, and designer Anna Fleischle.
Jim Broadbent stars as a fictionalised Hans Christian Andersen, who is keeping a diminutive Congolese woman in a mahogany box in his attic. In McDonagh’s imagination, it is Andersen’s African slave who is cruelly forced to write his celebrated fairy-tales. Oh, and there’s also blood-soaked Belgian ghosts, a potty-mouthed Charles Dickens, and some time-travel.
But what do the critics make of this dastardly Danish despot? Has McDonagh continued his extraordinary run of critical and commercial success? Is A Very Very Very Dark Matter very very very good? Or very very very not?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
McDonagh’s done dark fairy-tales before – his 2003 National Theatre smash The Pillowman was stuffed with them – but nothing this weird, apparently. A Very Very Very Dark Matter is, says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★), “comfortably the most WTF thing he’s ever done.”
A few critics embrace the outlandishness, but acknowledge that it is very divisive nonetheless. “It won’t be to everybody’s taste, I found its gothic fantasy macabre, funny and ultimately serious,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “For me, it confirms that McDonagh is a genuine original with a talent to disturb.”
“Somehow this pinball-cannoning, psycho jamboree holds together, and makes an impressive impact,” reckons Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★). “It’s a magnificent wild-card of a show, at once gaudy yet umbrous, and possibly McDonagh’s most magnetic work this century.”
“I would go again,” confesses Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★). “But, please, don’t take the children.”
Most critics, though, either think McDonagh’s play is either unclear, underdeveloped, unfunny, or all three. There’s outrage, but not really at McDonagh’s dark humour, merely at the play’s frustrating flimsiness.
“It is, perhaps, a fruitful premise – there’s plenty of scope for an interrogation of colonialism, racism, and the authenticity of authorship – but all that is entirely squandered, thanks to a bewildering plot that goes both nowhere and all over the place at the same time,” I wrote in WhatsOnStage, (★★). “It is, dramaturgically speaking, a complete mess. It smacks of something spaffed out to fill a predesignated spot in the Bridge’s programme.”
“This determinedly dark and twisted fable is sadly lacking in emotional and intellectual nuance,” agrees Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★), while Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★) points out that “it’s nowhere near as funny or entertaining as anything he’s written previously.”
“Whereas in the past his hallmark has been the freshness of his vision, here he seems to be parodying his own pitiless, no-filter style,” chimes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★). “There’s an abundance of weirdness and savagery — involving a pair of time-travelling, blood-soaked Belgians and a concertina that contains a machine gun — but none of it cuts deep.”
“McDonagh’s jokes are off-color, but never beyond the pale; his plot’s ticklish but never tips over to uproarious,” sums Matt Trueman (Variety). “A meandering structure lets air into a potboiler, and without coiled intensity, his shock-jock tactics land like damp squibs. This isn’t daredevil comedy, just vaguely pathetic, cocktail-napkin stuff.”
“It seems to me that as McDonagh has got older he’s lost both the imaginative freshness and energy of his early work, and that he lazily relies more and more on the same jokes, the same transgressions and the same shock tactics,” condemns Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★). “And the same ideas about storytelling.”
“It’s great that the Bridge is opening its doors to theatre’s renegades, but it mustn’t become home to second-division scripts – especially those around which there hangs more than a whiff of the Emperor’s new clothes,” concludes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★).
Director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischle were the crackerjack creatives behind the transatlantic success of Hangmen three years ago. Both have sparkling CVs, but what fantastical fairy-tale can they conjure up here?
Again, the critics are divided. Some reckon Dunster’s direction and Fleischle’s fantastical set are the best thing about the show, Lukowski praising the “Grand Guignol lunacy” of it all, Billington admiring its “wild inventiveness” and Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★) acknowledging that “Dunster’s slick production is charged with a schlocky tension.”
Others, though, think the Dunster’s efforts simply sink beneath the sagginess of McDonagh’s script.
“Matthew Dunster’s staging makes little sense,” writes Trueman. “For all the visual flair of Anna Fleischle’s design, an oak-beamed attic strung with gothic marionettes, McDonagh’s play feels like set pieces and comic sketches taped together. Very, very, very dark? Maybe — but lacking in matter.”
“Dunster’s production doesn’t know where to go or what to do on Anna Fleischle’s puppet-filled Santa’s grotto of a set,” says Morgan, while Bano observes that “the timing feels off.”
“Fleischle’s set is at least interesting to look at, a concoction of gnarled wooden rafters and dolls hanging like children from strings,” he adds. “It’s rare to see a set that actually might be haunted.”
So the play doesn’t get great marks, then, and neither does the production. Surely the ever-reliable Jim Broadbent can pull something out of the bag, though?
Some critics think he’s great, Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★★) writing that he’s “at his inimitable best” and Lukowski opining that “Broadbent’s Andersen is kind of brilliant, a feckless, infantile buffoon with a hysterical sense of entitlement who is, nonetheless, perversely loveable in his sweetly naive complacency.”
“Broadbent as Andersen succeeds in being simultaneously buffoonish and sadistic,” agrees Billington. “It is a joy to see Broadbent’s mooncalf features light up when he is being publicly feted or reading his global fan mail. But, as well as capturing Andersen’s childlike nature, Broadbent also exhibits an imperialist brutality in his treatment of his captive.”
“Broadbent – always good value – plays Andersen like an old-school, un-PC comedy entertainer forever making bad racist jokes,” lauds Bano, while some critics can’t see any positives in Broadbent’s performance. “His brash bonhomie as Hans is, to me at least, a case of one-note acting and a disappointing effort,” says Sierz, while I called him “fun but essentially frivolous” and Cavendish complains that he’s “an empty-eyed caricature who doesn’t get any biographical or emotional substance, only sitcomish carry-on.”
The most praise is actually reserved for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, who takes on the role of Andersen’s story-writing slave. She’s got a “fierce brilliance” according to Taylor and a “discerning dignity” according to Hitchings.
For Sierz, meanwhile, she supplies “a character study that is not only powerfully convincing, but is also a really remarkable stage debut.”
McDonagh’s play has its plaudits – The Guardian’s Michael Billington and The Times’ Ann Treneman among them – but many critics reckon A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a very, very, very big disappointment, particularly considering McDonagh’s sparkling record for both stage and screen.
A few four-star reviews, but a slew of twos and threes suggest that this is definitely not a fairy-tale return to the London stage for McDonagh.