Bridge Theatre, London – until 6 January 2018
A wooden box swings, pendulum-regular, in a peerlessly spooky attic of Halloween horror, designed with glee by Anna Fleischle. It is inhabited. Difficult, says its captive (using the unaccountable cowboy tones of Tom Waits) to hang yourself when you are shut in a 10ft box with one foot sawn off and no rope or laces. Hans Christian Andersen, downstairs, receives plaudits for reading aloud – with some unfamiliar stumbles – The Little Mermaid. He comes up to tell the captive – a Congolese female pygmy he calls Marjorie – to make the next story she gives him upbeat. No more “cripples dying in the snow”. Otherwise he might saw off her other foot. Every other word in their conversation is ‘fucking’ or “cunt”, though she at least is crisply intelligent, whereas Hans is a stumblebum (who does stumblebums better than Jim Broadbent, eh? OK, he is sometimes genuinely funny despite the text ’s lazy limitations).
Hans is under stress because two bloodstained time-travelling Belgians from the future are trying to prevent themselves being killed in that future by “Marjorie”, whose family they slew during King Leopold II’s appalling 1880s genocide. Luckily she has a haunted concertina with a hidden machine gun, in case they come for her while Hans is visiting Charles Dickens. Who he confuses with Charles Darwin, but who also got his tales from a captive but creative Congolese pygmy.
Dickens’ wife and small children, by the way, also eff and blind a lot, which may be lazy dialogue but is handy because it proves that – in defiance of increasingly compelling suspicion on my part – Martin McDonagh’s new absurdist play is not just a string of dated Monty Python sketches. It’s more modern: a sweary gross-out horror fantasy, a cheese-dream for intellectual literati.
You might enjoy it. Matter of taste. Dress it up perhaps as a solemn metaphor about colonial guilt and exploitation. Or go Freudian and decide that Marjorie is the dark inner side of any tormented artist. Alternatively just shrug. I did. It felt lazy and silly in equal parts. The brightest aspect, though, should be celebrated: it is a remarkable, assured, tough and sharpwitted professional debut for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles playing the Congolese captive. She even gives it edges of proper emotion, despite occasionally having to mime to that unaccountable cowboy Waits voice.
So OK, glad she got the gig. And mirth matters, wherever it is found, so glad too that quite a few of the audience laughed. Though rather tellingly, they never laughed never as heavily as at a theatreworld in-joke about German directors. By the way, McDonagh in his Mr McNasty mood adds a really unpleasant, and wholly gratuitous, little tale of a conjoined twin who dies slowly, deaf and blind, of rigor mortis when his sibling’s throat is cut. But hey, it’s dark comedy, innit? Sick, man!
box office www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 6 Jan