Bridge Theatre, London – until 9 January 2019
I’m fairly sure the land on which the Bridge Theatre was built was once a plague pit, but I’m beginning to wonder if the place isn’t itself cursed. How else can it commission a play by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri writer Martin McDonagh that is, not to put too fine a point on it, as enjoyable as passing A Very, Very, Very Painful Stool? For an hour and a half.
Dark, twisted and dystopian are almost a given in modern drama. Throw in some magical realism if you really want the zeitgeist that brings arty couples in matching black linen and tortoiseshell specs. Desecrate a few heroes while you’re at it and you’ve got a winner.
I’m just going to recite the synopsis because McDonagh’s plot is its own hired assassin: Denmark’s beloved storyteller Hans Christian Andersen keeps a mutilated black African female pygmy locked in a three-foot square box in his attic. While not determining to avenge the ravaging of the Belgian Congo by the troops of King Leopold II, she writes stories which a boastful Andersen passes off as his own. He visits Charles Dickens in London, where Dickens has also kept a Congolese ghost-writing dwarf in his own attic, but since she died is unable to complete his final work The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Andersen, played by Jim Broadbent, may look like Dr Doolittle but is depicted as a bully, a boor, a foul-mouthed and bigoted misogynist, racist and uncaring thug with an appetite for botched carpentry and dismemberment of the pygmy woman. The only historical truth I can find in the story is that Andersen did meet Dickens twice, and on the second occasion when he was invited to the family home at Gad’s Hill Place, extended his visit to five weeks which did not please either Dickens or his wife, and he never answered a letter from Andersen again.
Dickens (Phil Daniels) and his wife (Elizabeth Berrington) are similarly foul-mouthed – the encounter between the authors is like a sketch dashed off in five minutes by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – and so, amusingly, are their small children, but this F- and C- word loaded dialogue is a running joke which wears thin remarkably quickly.
The Congolese woman is played to good and sarcastic effect in a fierce debut by American-trained actress Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles. I hope she finds a better outlet for her undoubted talents.
Capitalising on Andersen’s well-documented neuroses and sexual obsessions, the character is also haunted by the spectre of two ‘red men’ – blood-soaked Belgian mercenaries hired to slaughter the pygmy population of the Congo – played by Ryan Pope and with little vocal disguise from his creepy psychopath ‘John Stape‘ character in Coronation Street, by Graeme Hawley.
McDonagh enjoys black humour – Hangmen was outstanding but it had a plot with which you could engage. There’s a real danger that the Bridge Theatre has bought not just another off-beat piece of writing, but an actual dud. You begin to wonder how many more blanks Nicholas Hytner can fire before his Bridge project looks not just unlucky, but misjudged.
The script refers to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes and it will be interesting to see which reviewers adopt the position of the courtiers.
Audiences that come to the Bridge are not identical to those who patronise the West End. On opening night, the building was crammed with ‘the industry’ air-kissing as though their life depended on it, and a coterie of Guardian-reading chattering classes including their altar boy of onanism, Owen Jones. Maybe they liked the play.
But, trust me, it’s wank.