A Very Very Very Dark Matter
The Bridge Theatre, London Until Jan 6, 1hr 30mins
There are plays that smell a bit off and plays that stink. This one pongs like something festering at the back of a student’s fridge.
What’s so surprising is that it’s by Martin McDonagh, a dazzling writer whose recent revival in the West End – The Lieutenant Of Inishmore – was a big smash. Indeed, his work for the theatre over more than 20 years has been bracingly audacious and funny, if scarily bleak.
The action here concerns Hans Christian Andersen (played by the great Jim Broadbent in doltish mode), who conceals the fact that his tales are all written by a Congolese pygmy woman he keeps locked in a box in the attic.
Phil Daniels as Dickens, Elizabeth Berrington as his wife Catherine and Jim Broadbent as Hans Christian Andersen in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
He’s chopped off her foot so she won’t escape. Poor Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is literally lumbered with a part that’s as wooden as her stump leg.
In the second half, Andersen visits Charles Dickens, played by Phil Daniels as a monstrous, swearing bully – John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, springs to mind – whose wife (Elizabeth Berrington) and kids equally loathe Andersen.
It turns out that the skeleton in Dickens’s cupboard is just that: the bones of another pygmy lady who wrote all his works. At this point, you’re thinking: ‘What the dickens..?’
As Congolese pygmy Marjory, poor Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles (above) is literally lumbered with a part that’s as wooden as her stump leg
Andersen did indeed stay with Dickens at his Kent home in 1857, for five eternal weeks. But the lovely idea of the Little Mermaid author being a crashing bore was better done by Sebastian Barry in his play Andersen’s English eight years ago.
In a totally baroque plot, there’s also a pair of blood-caked hitmen and some voiced-over narration by the legendary singer Tom Waits. Both Dickens and Andersen are horribly reduced to imperialist creative spongers in a play of casual comic cruelty and racist and height-ist jibes.
The puppet-infested Copenhagen attic (designed by Anna Fleischle) is wonderfully atmospheric. But what a cold, coarse comedy this is.
It struck me as a dashed-off hate letter to the theatre now that McDonagh – writer and director of Oscar-winner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – has a grander career in Hollywood.
On the basis of this, I hope he stays there.
Wise Children 2hrs 40mins
The Old Vic, London Until Nov 10, touring until Apr 6
Based on Angela Carter’s 1991 theatre novel, Emma Rice’s eccentric, gaudy adaptation is pitch-perfect for the populist tradition of The Old Vic.
Dora and Nora are Brixton-born septuagenarian twins, looking back on their lives as showgirls in pre-war London. They are played by various pairs of actors, notably Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook, as two old cockney bags.
Emma Rice’s gaudy adaptation is pitch-perfect for the populist tradition of The Old Vic. Above: Melchior (Paul Hunter), Showgirl Dora (Melissa James) and Showgirl Nora (Omari Douglas)
They are the cruelly spurned offspring of the ham Shakespearean actor Melchior (Paul Hunter). The baggy plot pings about the last century, powered by sex, grieving abandonment and past glories.
It’s directed by Emma Rice with her trademark eccentricity, and brilliantly designed by Vicki Mortimer. The cast throngs with stage hands, puppets, bombastic actors, chorines, and a patter comic in tweed who does a blissfully blue routine.
Katy Owen is a one-woman powerhouse as the girls’ protective gran.
You don’t need to know the novel. This deeply theatrical show is rich, warm and wonderfully evocative.
The Wild Duck
Almeida Theatre, London Until Dec 1, 2hrs 45mins
You can rely on director Robert Icke to do something a little different with the classics – witness his versions of Hamlet, Mary Stuart and Uncle Vanya for the Almeida.
Here he modernises and deconstructs this lesser Ibsen piece, which, typically, hinges on past secrets and lies and chickens (or a symbolic duck in this case) coming home to roost as past deeds are revealed to devastating effect.
To highlight the corrosive nature of these lies, Icke has the actors use handheld mics for asides to the audience to reveal, like the captions in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, what they are really feeling, back story and facts about Ibsen’s life.
You can rely on director Robert Icke to do something a little different with the classics. Above: Edward Hogg and Nicholas Farrell as James and Francis Ekdal
Fine for a while but the device is laboured; it’s like Ibsen For Dummies. There’s also larky use of props from the audience – the eponymous duck is at one point represented by a handbag.
The complex skein of relationships, emotional and financial, between the well-off Woods family and the impoverished Ekdals is complex. There’s also incipient dementia, mental illness and a 12-year-old girl unknowingly going blind.
With the arrival of verbose idealist Gregory Woods (much given to sounding off with that mic), his picking at the scab of truth proves more toxic than all the mendacity.
Icke vividly lays bare the emotional dynamics at work, and reaps rewards in Edward Hogg’s febrile performance as struggling photographer James Ekdal, but sometimes it all feels just too self-consciously clever.
The Midnight Gang
Chichester Festival Theatre Until Sat, 2hrs 5mins
David Walliams’s kids’ book – set in a sternly old-fashioned hospital, where bored inhabitants of a children’s ward go on midnight adventures – has been turned into a musical by playwright Bryony Lavery and composer Joe Stilgoe.
Walliams’s kind-hearted story should be a good fit for the stage: the children, with the help of a friendly porter, make each other’s dreams come true at the witching hour with the power of their imaginations. Though this fitful adaptation is enjoyable, it is never quite spellbinding.
Though this fitful adaptation is enjoyable, it is never quite spellbinding. Cody Molko (centre) as Tom and Dickon Gough (right) as the Porter
Cody Molko gives a nimble performance as nightie-wearing hero Tom, and all the young actors are springy and energetic. As is the jaunty music, which swerves sentimentality, although one cancer-stricken girl’s song will put a lump in your throat.
Villainy comes in the form of Jennie Dale’s sadistic matron. Her steamy tango with a strict headteacher is a comic highlight, though more for the parents.
Same goes for a manic satire about the hell of NHS patient feedback forms. This show ticks plenty of boxes but remains ‘good’ rather than ‘excellent’.
Death Of A Salesman (until Nov 17)
Troilus & Cressida (until Nov 17)
Andy Apollo as Achilles in Troilus & Cressida
Willy Loman is a great part in a great play but, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Don Warrington’s portrayal of the man broken by his own and his sons’ perceived failure to live up to the American Dream is strangely one-note. Elsewhere, this Death Of A Salesman is strikingly fluid.
The in-the-round staging allows memories and visions to swirl dreamily and, with the action set on a great metal wheel but with a ceiling hung with tree branches, the lines about yearning to get back to nature make sense. And Maureen Beattie is heart-rending as Willy’s wife Linda.
Gregory Doran’s high camp Troilus & Cressida at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is both cynical and downright silly. The design is Mad Max-like: a sword ’n’ sandals epic dragged through Camden Market.
Achilles (Andy Apollo) looks like He-Man; Ajax is in fetish gear. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s soundscapes add bombast but it’s often a baffling play and could use a cut. The real flaw is the failure to tackle Cressida’s dumping of Troilus.