A Very Very Very Big Miss

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By the time the lights fade on the final scene of the Bridge Theatre‘s production of what one must assume is the unrevised first draft of Martin McDonagh‘s very very very uneven new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter, you’ll have long since figured out that the tagline on the poster is absolutely accurate: this is no fairytale, despite the fact that Hans Christian Andersen is the central character. We may first see Jim Broadbent’s preening, vainglorious Hans concluding a reading of The Little Mermaid, but McDonagh – as you’d expect – very quickly moves into less familiar territory. What follows is a breathless, bumpy ride through a plot that struggles to spin Andersen’s infamous five-week visit to Charles Dickens into a fable which attempts to connect a dissection of colonial atrocities in Victorian Africa with a meditation on the way fairytales spring from the darker side of our subconscious, via a recurring discussion of the dominance of the white male, both in the history of published fiction, and in history itself. There’s also a bit of time travel thrown in, and a scene with Charles Dickens’s very sweary children, and grizzled prerecorded narration by Tom Waits.

At the centre of McDonagh’s studiedly-outrageous plot is Marjory, the “Congolese pygmy woman” Andersen supposedly keeps locked up in a three-foot-high mahogany box in his Copenhagen attic, and who we’re told writes Andersen’s stories in return for sausages he pokes through a hole in the box’s front window (no, actual sausages, you have a filthy mind). Andersen takes Marjory’s characters and whitewashes them, removing any details that identify them as black, and then passes them off as his own; it’s a passable enough metaphor for the way European countries treated their colonies, although you’ll get a more nuanced discussion of the way the white cultural hegemony bleaches the black out of black culture across London at Dreamgirls at the Savoy, but here it’s buried in the middle of a narrative that seems to keep throwing things at the stage in the hope that a few of them will eventually stick. That might be OK if McDonagh managed to bring everything together into a coherent whole, but he doesn’t. The overall impression is of watching a stack of ideas circling a point but never quite landing on it.

It does manage to hold your attention, though, and there are some genuine laughs, although the play’s comedic voice is sometimes problematic. Broadbent brings just the right amount of twinkle to his nastily self-absorbed Hans, and wrings all the laughs he can out of the script. Phil Daniels’s Sweary Charles Dickens is a joy, and so is Elizabeth Berrington’s even swearier Mrs. Dickens. As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles gives a tremendously dignified performance in a role that should be a bigger gift to an actor than it is here. Too often, McDonagh falls back on having Andersen make (frankly racist) jokes at Marjory’s expense; there’s a fine line between exposing stereotypes and simply parroting them, and McDonagh comes perilously close to finding himself on the wrong side of it. There’s a cosiness, too, to his discussion of white dominance – yes, there are still statues of King Leopold all over Belgium despite the atrocities his soldiers committed in the Congo, but that fact floats by in the middle of a stream of one-liners and comic business and other ideas, and it doesn’t land the way it was probably meant to.

Worse, there are several moments where we’re clearly supposed to laugh at some aspect of Andersen’s treatment of Marjory, and watching a tall, relatively strong, relatively well-off white man mistreat a short, physically-handicapped black woman (Marjory has only one foot, Andersen having apparently – we’re told – amputated the other one in return for once letting her out of her box) simply isn’t funny, although that didn’t stop some people laughing. It’s OK for comedy to get dark, and to take on complicated moral territory – it’s more than OK, black comedy and gallows humour can be tremendously effective weapons when deployed effectively – but to pull it off successfully you need to make the audience start to question why they laughed, and there needs to be a reason for the laugh that extends beyond the comedy of cruelty. I don’t know whether the problem here is McDonagh’s messy script or Matthew Dunster’s  production, which feels slack-paced even though the play is only about 80 minutes long, but the play’s overall tone is comfortable, in a way that sits very uneasily against the subject matter, which makes the laughs that come at Marjory’s expense wince-inducing for those among the audience who aren’t joining in.

There’s far more edge in Anna Fleischle’s fabulously macabre set design – an attic with dozens of creepy-looking puppets hanging from the rafters – than in the writing, which is never as clever or as dangerous as it thinks it is, or as it needs to be. Broadbent is always good value, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket (so are Daniels and Berrington), but the character McDonagh gives him doesn’t stretch him; in the haunted look in his eyes as the lights fade at the end of the final scene there’s a glimpse of the much more interesting play this could have been if McDonagh hadn’t (uncharacteristically) consistently privileged easy laughs over intellectual depth. There’s enough in the performances, and enough humour that works, that it’s difficult to have a very very very bad time watching A Very Very Very Dark Matter, but this is, unfortunately, a very very VERY bad play, and it needn’t have been. McDonagh seems to be coasting on his reputation here: somebody should have sent him back to take another pass at his script, or preferably about twenty other passes at his script, but I suppose it’s difficult to make someone whose awards and nominations have their own Wikipedia page go back and revise substandard work if they aren’t inclined to do it off their own bat. The result, unfortunately, is a play that never once hits hard enough: watching it is rather like being promised Tramadol and then getting an aspirin.

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes Rosalie…

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It works.

If, like me, you had big doubts about whether a revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth‘s seminal 1970 musical Company set in the present day and with the central character’s gender flipped from male to female was a viable idea, let go of them. To say Marianne Elliott‘s extraordinary production – and bear in mind that this is a show I know backwards, forwards, and inside-out, and I’m picky – succeeds triumphantly might be the understatement of the year. Well, the theatrical understatement of the year, anyway, because “Boris Johnson is a morally and intellectually bankrupt attention whore who is motivated only by his own pathetically naked ambition to be Prime Minister” is a given. It’s not simply that Elliott has done a superlative job of staging the show, or that she’s assembled an unimpeachable cast, although she’s done both. Somehow, with the help of a very light sprinkling of new lyrics from Mr. Sondheim and almost no changes to George Furth’s dialogue, she’s managed to take a show that these days feels like a period piece (and frankly only really works when you set it in 1970), relocate it firmly in the present, and make it seem absolutely up-to-date and absolutely fresh, even to someone (well, me) who is very familiar indeed with the material. And on top of that, it’s probably as funny a production of the show as you’re ever likely to see.

So what has changed? Other than the gender of five characters, not as much as you’d expect. Company is an episodic piece, a musical constructed by Sondheim, Furth, and director Harold Prince around a series of vignettes about marriage written by Furth, in which a 35-year-old single man looks at the lives of his friends and tries to decide whether he’s ready for a committed one-on-one relationship. Structurally, it’s (mostly) a series of self-contained sketches linked by songs, rather than a traditional linear narrative (it is, however, neither “plotless” nor “formless“, as misguided theatre critics have sometimes described it). That makes it easier for Elliott to flip the genders of a few characters, since each scene is relatively self-contained; each vignette shows the central character – Bobbie here, not Robert – interacting with either one couple or one romantic partner – which means that changing one of the couples into a gay couple and Bobby/ie’s three girlfriends into boyfriends has no knock-on effect in the surrounding scenes. Sondheim has rewritten the lyrics for Someone Is Waiting so that Bobbie ticks off the names of the husbands among her married friends rather than the wives, and there are a few small changes in the breathless, breathtaking pre-wedding-jitters patter song Getting Married Today, particularly among the lines for the church soloist. We’re in the present, not 1970, so in Another Hundred People “my service will explain” is now “I’ll text you to explain”. With two of the married couples among Bobbie’s friends – Jenny and David, Peter and Susan – the dialogue has been flipped between the wife and the husband, so that the women take the stronger role in the conversation with Bobbie. A (very) few lines have been tweaked elsewhere; very, very little of Furth’s dialogue has been changed (he’s unavailable for rewrites, having died in 2008), and with the exception of Someone is Waiting and a prominent joke in Barcelona,  that’s also true of the lyrics. There are a few adjustments here and there, but this is not a wholesale rewrite.

We’re starting from the mid-90s revised text, so Joanne doesn’t get to say “everybody else here is just Lois and Larry Loser” in the opening scene; the production keeps Marry Me a Little, which this edition of the script rather awkwardly shoehorns in at the end of the first act, but (mercifully) drops the second-act scene in which one of the husbands makes a gay pass at Robert, which has never worked in any production I’ve seen that included it. There are new orchestrations by David Cullen (for a band of 14, positioned on a bridge high above the stage) which iron the very-early-1970s Bacharach-and-David-with-a-master’s-degree sound of the Jonathan Tunick originals out of the score. That’s a loss; the original orchestrations are terrific, and far more distinctive than Cullen’s work here, but they’d jar in a production set in the present. All things considered, given that the production switches the gender of five characters, there is astonishingly little rewriting. Any number of musical revivals have put an established text through more revision to less effect, even if they haven’t gone as far as changing the gender of any characters; very few of them have matched Elliott’s achievement here, in terms of making us see very familiar material from a completely different perspective.

It’s not just Elliott’s achievement, of course, because she’s pulled a set of magnificent performances out of her cast. The karate scene – or rather, jujitsu in this production –  has probably never been funnier than it is in the hands of Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes; you might be most familiar with Giedroyc from her work as a TV presenter (with or without Sue Perkins), but she’s a formidable comic actor with spectacular timing,  she knows her way around a pratfall, and at one point she manages to make a three-act play out of the word “manicotti”. Spokes is just as funny, and then brings a lovely melancholic ambivalence to Sorry-Grateful at the end of the scene. Can Mel Giedroyc sing? Well, nobody is going to be pestering her to record a Giedroyc Sings Gershwin album, but her character doesn’t have a solo number and she more than holds her own among the ensemble, including in the technically-tricky opening number.

Elsewhere there are standout turns from Daisy Maywood as Susan, who finds happiness in her marriage only after she and her husband divorce, and particularly from Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey, the (now) gay couple who marry (offstage) at the end of the first act. Gaumond is sweet without being cloying, and Bailey’s Jamie elevates neurosis to an art form and delivers a tour-de-force performance of Getting Married Today that brings the show to a juddering halt, mostly so the audience can catch their breath because they’ve been laughing so hard – although while Bailey is great, credit here should also go to Daisy Maywood’s pricelessly-funny, sung-to-the-rafters turn as the church soloist whose soprano commentary links the song’s verses.

Matthew Seadon-Young, George Blagden, and Richard Fleeshman are terrific as the three boyfriends – Theo, PJ, and Andy, taking the place of Kathy, Marta, and April, and their You Could Drive a Person Crazy deservedly brings down the house. Blagden’s PJ is a too-cool-for-school Englishman In New York, and it makes total sense to hear Marta’s lines about Fourteenth Street being the centre (sorry, center) of the universe being delivered by an outsider with all the zeal of the most enthusiastic convert to the religion of New York. Fleeshman’s Andy – a slightly dim, slightly off-beam flight attendant – proves he can be superb when he has good material to play with (Fleeshman was bland in The Last Ship and dreadful in Ghost, and in both cases the writing let him down), and he finds laughs in the butterfly monologue that I’ve never heard before.

And then there are the production’s heavy-hitters: Patti LuPone as Joanne, the acerbic, wealthy, much-married Lady Who Lunches whose proposition pushes Bobbie towards a decision at the show’s climax, and Rosalie Craig as the unmarried woman at the centre of the show. LuPone is a problematic, sometimes too mannered, sometimes very undisciplined performer who can be astonishingly good when she’s on her best behaviour and equally astonishingly self-indulgent when she isn’t; here, she is, and she’s flawless, spitting one-liners with laser-guided accuracy and – for once in her career – singing all the consonants in the lyrics in her numbers instead of steamrollering them into the ground.

Changing Bobbie into a woman also brings a fascinating shift in emphasis to the final section of The Ladies Who Lunch; in other productions, I’ve always felt “here’s to the girls who just watch…” is the point where Joanne moves from picking off targets to self-laceration. Here, that comes a little later, and LuPone’s Joanne is clearly including Bobbie in the “girls who just watch”, which ties neatly in to the later part of the scene where she accuses Bobbie of observing life rather than participating in it. It also slightly changes the emphasis of Being Alive, the Great Big Solo in which Bobby – usually – comes down in favour of a committed relationship. In this interpretation, it’s less about committing to a relationship than about choosing to be open to every possibility instead of watching from the sidelines. The ending of Company, to a greater or lesser extent, always feels like a bit of a cop-out – in most interpretations of the material, Being Alive is a rather more affirmative statement than the character has earned by that point, and the moment of realisation in the previous scene – “but who will I take care of?” – comes out of nowhere. Elliott’s version doesn’t entirely paper over the cracks in that section of the show, but it comes closer than most; seeing Joanne accuse Bobbie of “just watch(ing)” a couple of moments earlier – and seeing Bobbie recognise the accusation – is a minor change, but a valuable one. Another change: this Joanne, perhaps disappointingly, doesn’t make a gay pass at Bobbie, but instead offers to set Bobbie up with her husband (the line is “when are you and Larry gonna make it?”). You might expect the ick factor here to be through the roof, but actually it works: LuPone’s Joanne knows exactly what she’s doing in this scene, and it isn’t trying to set up an affair between her husband and her friend. She’s being deliberately provocative to push Bobbie into making a choice; LuPone is very good indeed on the line “I just did someone a big favour” at the end of the scene. It’s perfectly possible to play Joanne as just a loud, rich broad – plenty of people have – but LuPone (and Elliott) dont’ fall into that trap. LuPone’s Joanne is a lot cleverer than she lets on, even when she’s blind drunk.

Rosalie Craig brings real (and surprising) star presence to the role, makes perfect sense of the revised script’s conception of Bobbie as an independent woman questioning whether she’s ready for commitment, and does a gorgeous job with her songs. She’s great, but she suffers a little from the problem that has plagued nearly every man who has played the role before her: Bobby/ie is the normative figure linking a parade of supporting characters who are all basically colourfully-drawn caricatures and who get most of the show’s best lines. With the single exception of Daniel Evans in a revival at the Crucible a few years ago – a much bleaker take on both the character and the material than this production offers – Craig comes closer than anyone I’ve ever seen to creating a version of the character who doesn’t fade into the background against the supporting cast; that she doesn’t quite get there is attributable more to the writing than to anything she brings to the role. She’s wonderful – but she’s wonderful as a character who sometimes seems to exist as a series of bland feeder-lines, and that’s been a problem in every iteration of Company’s script.

As for Elliott’s staging, it’s full of surprises, and so is Bunny Christie’s set. Neon-edged rooms slide across the stage, recede into the distance, and pop up from the stage floor. People appear seemingly out of nowhere (the clever illusions are by Chris Fisher) and disappear in a split-second when your attention is directed elsewhere (watch out for the church soloist’s second and third appearances in Getting Married Today). Liam Steele’s choreography finds witty substitutions for the iconic moments from the original production – the pat-a-cake “tap-dance” in Side by Side by Side is particularly effective – and the rearranged Tick Tock ballet, a Multiplicity-inspired dream sequence in which multitudes of Bobbies contemplate marriage and motherhood with each of her three potential suitors, works very well indeed, and more than justifies its place in the show (in the original version it’s a solo dance performed by the actress who plays Kathy, and these days it’s often cut). The pace never flags, everybody understands the tone and the rhythm of the show they’re in, and the show – still in previews when I saw it – moves with a confidence that can only come from a director whose grasp of showmanship is as firm as her ability to get to the heart of a scene, or to guide the actors to the biggest laughs. This is a dazzling jewel of a revival, the work of a director, a creative team, and a cast who love the material and know how to get everything they can out of it. There are no caveats here; flipping the gender of the show’s central character was a gamble, but the gamble has more than paid off. Every word, every beat, every second of this production makes the material seem newly-minted, even if – like me – you know the show so well that you remember half the dialogue before the actors do. My only complaint – we’ve established by now that I’m picky, haven’t we? – is that nobody has announced a cast album yet. Or a movie screening. Or a Broadway transfer, because work this good deserves a longer life than twelve weeks in the West End.

And yes, of course I’m going again before it closes. I hadn’t booked a repeat visit before I saw it – as I said, I had doubts – but I have now. If you love this material as much as I do, you’ll need to see this more than once.

One more thing: Patti LuPone provides the taped pre-show announcement about mobile phones and recording devices, and it’s a stroke of genius. It more than winks at her rather combative track record of dealing with interruptions from the audience, and it gets (and deserves) a big laugh. Pay attention… and do as she says, particularly if (like I was) you’re sitting within spitting-range of the stage.

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