Like the film reviews I’ve decided to go for the before/ after approach…
A new play – a ‘World Premiere’ no less, by Martin McDonagh – writer/ director of the likes of ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Three Billboards..’ and writer of plays including The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Hangmen – both of which we’d seen and very much enjoyed in London’s West End over the past couple of years. This new play, a twisted take on the life of Hans Christian Anderson, and starring Jim Broadbent, is one of the very first to be staged at the still-in-its-first-year Bridge Theatre just next to Tower Bridge in London. Professional reviews before hand were…mixed, to say the least.
Well, it says something when Tom Waits narrating your play is one of the most conventional things about it…
Coming out of the theater, people were standing around gasping for air. Whether this was the uncomfortably warm temperature in the place or because of what they’d just seen (and unlike other reported shows there were no walk-outs in this one that I observed), is questionable: if they’d come for a Phillip Pullman type story (both the title and the poster as seen above seemed reminiscent of his work), then they were likely to be…surprised – as will, no doubt, the young waitress who we spoke to just before we went in who exclaimed excitedly that she was going to see it next week and couldn’t wait because it had ‘the man from Harry Potter in it’.
The story, which, to be fair IS a dark tale about Hans Christian Anderson, sees the author (Broadbent) as a Black Adder slide-kick level of buffoon whose work has been ghost written by a ‘Marjory’ – a Congolese pygmy amputee he keeps locked up in an ever diminishing box in his attic, who takes a trip to see Charles
Darwin Dickens (a running gag throughout), who has his own trapped Congolese pygmy amputee (‘Marjory”s sister) who is writing his material while he spends his time philandering around London to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife. And if that’s not strange enough for you, there’s a couple of time-travelling Belgium hit men, who Marjory knows she must stop before they are responsible/ involved in the slaughter of 9 million 10 million (‘when the numbers get that high it gets confusing…’ in another running gag.)
So, no Phillip Pullman, or indeed Harry Potter here, then.
It’s a strange old (or rather new) piece all in all. Critics have been divided between ‘rushed’, ‘unclear messaging’ ‘self-indulgent’, ‘crass humour’ to the more positive ‘challenging’ and a ‘comment on masculinity/ femininity and the creative process’), with one critic going as far as to say that theatres really need to be doing more to ‘just say no’ to named authors when considering their works.
And you can see why it is something of a coup for a new theatre like The Bridge (a very modern, very impressive set up itself with real food and drink apparently, unlike so many of the grand dames of the capital). Some Critics have drawn comparisons in McDonagh’s rascist/ sexist/ offensive in all sorts of way dialogue to Quentin Tarrantino – I think that’s way off the mark, but where I think there is a comparison is in the pair’s ability to attract talent: there are some well known names here in minuscule parts: I’m guessing it’s only McDonagh’s name and reputation that got those actors to sign up night after night for a three month run for such small roles. And, talking of roles and runs, if that dreaded theatre sign ‘tonight the part of Marjorie will be played by…’ I’m curious as to know who the understudy is – I don’t know if McDonagh wrote the play for or with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in mind, but it would be a difficult role for any other actress to take on given the specific physicality of the description.
Critics and audiences are currently tying themselves up in knots over their praise or damnation – it’s certainly not one that’s getting people sitting on the fence…so I’ll be really controversial and do that.
There was a lot about the play I liked – the staging was great, and Tom Waits’ recorded narration was pure Tom Waits – it could have come from Orphans as easily as from the pen of McDonagh – indeed the whole production, including the score felt very much in Waits’ twisted oeuvre (does that make me sound like a real critic or a tosser…make joke here) but that could be me looking to find Tom Waits in everything I see and hear. It was good to see Jim Broadbent on stage for the first time. I laughed, and quite hard, at some of the jokes (and didn’t get offended at the more ‘peurile’, ‘racist’ ‘juvenile’ ones that seemed to have some of the critics reaching for their smelling salts (really? How precious are some of these people?). At the same time, I did come out with a bit of a WTF? Not that it was completely unpenetrable, or ‘challenging’ – although, even after reading a few reviews I seem as confused as most about what McDonagh’s ‘message’ was. Yes, there are questions around authorship, and roles, and dark (very, very, very dark in fact) secrets. But I’m not so clear on the Congolese massacre analogy.
Did I like it as much as McDonagh’s other works? No. I have to be honest and say I didn’t – McDonagh himself has said he prefers to work in film now than on stage as he can ‘do more’, and the themes he can address or more viable on celluloid. I think that’s a shame, and I hope this doesn’t prove to be some sort of swan song – he’s always interesting, and the casts his plays attract are stellar. I don’t know that this will ‘improve’ as the run goes on: there’s no question of the cast improving with the material they have, or needs for set changes etc: it’s more in the play itself. At 90 minutes with no interval I think it was the right length for the nature and the subject it was covering – but whether those two things warranted, or were expressed in as finessed a way as they could have been I’m not so sure.
So if I were to fall off one side of the fence? Definitely on the positive side: and, even if there had been an interval, then I most certainly would have stayed, but I can understand some of the niggles the more positive critics had, if not the damnation of the more vehement negative reviews – some of which, to be frank, just seemed desperate to crowbar in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ gag which, when they’re accusing McDonagh of relying on ‘lazy rehashes’ is a bit ironic…