Like The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh’s supreme 2003 play, his latest work is also about a storyteller – in this case Hans Christian Andersen – telling dark stories and exploring why he tells them.
But this time McDonagh, whose film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won two Oscars and five BAFTAs last year, doesn’t even come close to hitting the same dizzying heights and dark lows of The Pillowman.
An amazing cast has been assembled – featuring not only Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, but Tom Waits doing the (pre-recorded) narration. McDonagh has also reunited with the creative team that helped make such a success of Hangmen in 2015: director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischle.
Given all this, it’s a very big disappointment, breaking a streak of success that has lasted pretty much from McDonagh’s first work The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996.
Broadbent – always good value – plays Andersen like an old-school, un-PC comedy entertainer forever making bad racist jokes. For complicated reasons, he keeps a time-travelling Congolese pygmy in a wooden box in his attic.
Then Andersen meets Phil Daniels’ foul-mouthed Cockney Charles Dickens, who also keeps a Congolese pygmy in his attic. The pygmies are attempting to stop the future atrocities inflicted in the (then) Congo Free State by King Leopold of Belgium.
Fleischle’s set is at least interesting to look at, a concoction of gnarled wooden rafters and dolls hanging like children from strings. It’s rare to see a set that actually might be haunted. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory the pygmy puts in a good performance in her stage debut, as does Broadbent, but the two don’t really click.
Dunster’s direction lets it down too. The timing feels off. A neck-slicing scene could be great, but happens too quickly to make much of an impact.
McDonagh pushes buttons as he usually does. He revels in the grotesquery of physical differences and deformities. The body count is fairly high. This is the most explicitly political his work has been for a while, but it’s also his most incomprehensible play. The Congo plot is tacked on like an afterthought. It makes no sense and yet, if you take it away, the play seems flimsy and pointless.
Of course you could read it as a metaphor for the exercise of imagination in stories, but again McDonagh has already outdone himself on that theme. Or the mythologising of famous authors. Or white oppression, colonialism, and appropriation. It’s hard to tell.
What is clear, and this maybe the show’s biggest fault, is that it’s nowhere near as funny or entertaining as anything he’s written previously.