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For a brief time, this new piece by the highly esteemed Martin McDonagh (playwright of The Pillowman, Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, and director-screenwriter of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) coasts along on the deranged energy of its wtf!* premise, but its resolute refusal to develop its themes and issues beyond anything other than the superficial ultimately sinks engagement, concluding as a weightless wisp of an experience.

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Hans Christian Andersen, that most celebrated author of fairy tales (here seen as a monstrous toddler, a cartoonish vortex of keening ego and selfishness, soaking up adulation) keeps a Pygmy woman enslaved in his attic, the revelation being that she is the genuine creator of his body of work. He is locked in a combative, sadistic relationship with her, going so far as to cut off limbs to prevent her escape, marooning her far from home, entirely reliant on his whimsy, and subject to survival based on his terms.

Credit the times

No one less than Dickens is soon dragged on stage as a fellow conspirator in this very curious set of circumstances. A vague grasp towards statements about colonialism and racism hover about idly but never blossom-and what any of this has to do with the collected work of either of these literary titans remains, at least for me, a mystery (neither subject is germane to Andersen’s or Dickens’s oeuvre). Or perhaps the perverse point is that both individuals eschewed any mention, in their output, of the horrors that were taking place in the name of empire, instead offering fantastical confections or carnivalesque epics of domestic social ills- a crime for which they obviously should be punished, given the potential for awareness their influence and reach could bring to global conflict.

Credit londonmagazine

Coming from an artist who usually well orchestrates a tone of savage black comedy, fashioning it into a tough, alarming, adroitly bleak sensibility and worldview, this slick skirt of surface is shocking. The casually profane dialog doesn’t really sting or offend as it never pricks at anything deeper or truly troubling (Andersen’s protracted stay at Dickens’s home, a matter of historical accuracy, unfurls as a expletive-filled pantomime sitcom, a portrayal which demeans both men). The purpose of the play, its essence, is obstinately opaque, and I rather wish that McDonagh had pushed matters to the limits in either direction, gone full gonzo absurd, or scaled back to vulnerably human-instead, the script hovers awkwardly between the two states with no clear direction.

Credit west end theatre

Tom Wait’s scratchy, burnished dusk of a voice narrates a few passages, like the devil musing into your soul, and I rather found myself wishing to follow his voice on a voyage to the netherworld. The production hardly utilises the potential of the central environment, the dusty, high-raftered attic with a plague of puppets hanging from the beams, corners stuffed with furnishings and knick-knacks. A duo of time-travelling slain Belgian soldiers and a haunted accordion also figure into the crazed action because…why not? A Very Very Very Dark Matter continues through 6 January

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