Bridge Theatre. On until 6 January 2019
On paper or in person the pitch would have been irresistible: the prolific playwright (and writer of screenplays In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) Martin McDonagh has a gothic story involving Hans Christian Andersen, pygamies, Dickens, avenging ghosts and a haunted accordion. Add some nineteenth century empire building critique of King Leopold II’s murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo for political bite, and you’ve got a hit. No? No!
We open to a darkened house filled with creepy dolls and mannequins and other objects and instruments hanging from, shelved or scatted in a gabled room. Actually as there is no curtain at the Bridge Theatre, as we enter to take our seats, we see the dark set, trying to make it out as we chat and finish our drinks before lights up. Suspended to the right of the set is a large box which is swinging ominously and slowly from side to side. A voice from out of the darkness begins to narrate, and we learn we are in Denmark around the late 1830s in the home of the famous and hugely popular writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen (played by Jim Broadbent). As the swinging box turns, it reveals a glass side, a small round hole, and someone, a woman, writing frantically as if her life depends upon it. And we learn it possibly does. Each sheaf of paper filled with prose, gets posted through a gap at the bottom of the glass and flutters down onto the wooden floor. This is Hans Christian Andersen’s muse. No not muse. His enslaved writer of his fairytales.
This does all sound like a wonderful conceit for a story and a play. This is not a play suitable for children by the way. Not because it would give them nightmares (it might, although I don’t think even they could suspend their disbelief enough to be frightened), nor because of the frankly unnecessary profanity (I don’t mind a good unhealthy amount of swearing), but once you get the point that our fraudulent author is a potty-mouth unsuitable to be in the company of children, the joke is done. No, it’s not suitable for children, nor for adults, because it is a meandering self-indulgent mess.
There are some very funny lines. There are some standout scenes – scratch that – there is one standout scene with Dickens, played by Phil Daniels, and his family in London, which was hilarious. And there are some good performances, including a theatrical debut from Johnette Eula’Mae Ackles as the writer of the tales in the box. I do think Jim Broadbent struggles though to be both comic and sinister at the same time.
But overall the story becomes preposterous and the jokes puerile and lame. I don’t mind flights of fancy, or being lead down dark and twisting paths. In fact I love them. And I have enjoyed works by Martin McDonagh before, not least The Hangman. Ultimately though it is the writing here which is flawed. And no amount of good acting can save the play.
Saturday 13 October (Gallery 1, T59) – note this was during previews