Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube

Agatha Christie: The Mirror Crack’d – Touring production – review

Rachel Wagstaff’s triumphant adaptation of classic Christie whodunit

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Watch the YouTube review of The Mirror Crack’d-

The Wales Millennium Centre and Wiltshire Creative touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff,  received its premiere at Salisbury Playhouse.

Production photo showing Katherine Manners in The Mirror Crack'd Photo Credit: Helen Murray
Katherine Manners in The Mirror Crack’d
Photo Credit: Helen Murray

This could have a standard Agatha Christie whodunit but this production is far above standard. Rachel Wagstaff has provided an adaptation that is faithful to the plot and characters, necessarily simplified for a two hour stage show, but with unexpected depth added.

It’s still a story of Miss Marple investigating the death of a villager who expires after drinking a famous film star’s daiquiri.The original shows  Miss Marple concerned that she’s being marginalised by her old age and the changing times (it’s set in the early Sixties). In this story, she is also temporarily disabled to add to her feeling of being ignored.

Production photo showing Susie Blake in The Mirror Crack'd
Susie Blake in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Apart from putting a contemplation of the invisibility of old age centre stage, this play concerns itself with the loneliness of older people.  It also dwells on memory- both the way in which memories affect who we are but also, integral to the plot, the unreliability of memory.

We see the same scene re-enacted on numerous occasions, each time slightly different depending on who is telling the story. Melly Still‘s pared back production with a simple, appropriately dark set by Richard Kent keeps the story moving between flashbacks and changes of scene.

Rachel Wagstaff’s dialogue is also more dynamic than Agatha Christie’s and more robust, by which I mean there’s some swearing.

Production photo showing Susie Blake and Simon Shepherd in The Mirror Crack'd.
Susie Blake & Simon Shepherd in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Susie Blake has some big acts to follow in the role of Miss Marple but she more than holds her own with a mix of quiet determination and sly humour. The rest of the cast, and there are eleven altogether, provide humour and weight. Simon Shepherd is amusing as the pompous, patronising Chief inspector Craddock. Suzanna Hamilton is the fragile film star and Julia Hills is amusing and slightly sad as Miss Marple’s snobbish but empathetic friend Dolly.

The Mirror Crack’d has an entertaining plot with some welcome depth, like biting on a soft chocolate and finding a chewy centre.

The Mirror Crack’d continues at Salisbury Playhouse until 9 March 2019 then visits The Gaiety Theatre Dublin (12-16 March), the Arts Theatre Cambridge (19-23 March) and New Theatre Cardiff (26 March-6 April).

All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson & Lily James

All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at the Noel Coward Theatre London

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Watch the YouTube review of All About Eve here

You may well know the story. After all, the film All About Eve is a classic. Scripted by Joseph L Mankiewicz, it tells of a young would-be actor who ingratiates herself into the inner circle of an ageing stage star in order to further her career. If you’re not familiar with the story, be ready for surprises and twists.

Production shot of Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by ivo van Hove at Noel Coward theatre London
Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All about Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The first thing to say is the two leads are mesmerising. It’s worth the ticket price just for their performances. Gillian Anderson as the established and talented Margo Channing conveys the insecurity behind her diva facade that eventually brings out awful behaviour. Lily James as Eve turns on a penny from disingenuous devotion to cold eyed viciousness.


At which theatre can I see All About Eve?

Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0JP until 11 May 2019. Booking line: 0844 871 7629    Website: https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/phoenix-theatre

Who directed All About Eve?

Ivo Van Hove

Who stars in All About Eve?

Gillian Anderson and Lily James


Add to that, a performance of great subtlety from Monica Dolan as Margo’s kindly but naïve friend Karen. Her hysterical laughter during a dinner is hilarious.

Also outstanding in a great cast are Julian Ovenden as Margo’s egocentric but loving partner Bill, Sheila Reid as Margo’s devoted but worldly wise Birdie and Stanley Townsend as the monstrous power-abusing critic Addison DeWitt.

Production shot of Julian Ovenden and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Julian Ovenden & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The production cleverly puts Margo dead centre, because, although the title is All About Eve, the play is much more about Margo, her coming to terms with getting older, her considering her position as a woman in society, and her fears about losing her younger partner. So Margo herself, the great star, is the centre of attention. Anything that happens that doesn’t involve her nearly always takes place off or to the side of the stage.

In this respect the set by Jan Versweyveld does a great job. Her room is the main set and her dressing table is right in the middle. Beyond the main set, we can see the backstage and wings.  Above there are giant video screens that convey live what is happening in these areas.  

Production shot of Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson and Monica Dolan in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson & Monica Dolan in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I didn’t like so much was seeing close ups of the people off stage. For me, the joy of theatre is its human scale. I saw no reason why these scenes shown on the screens shouldn’t be acted on the stage, maybe off centre.

There are occasions when the screens add to our understanding. There’s a camera in the mirror so we can see her face with all its middle aged details that the theatre audience can’t see. And there’s a great moment when the reflection of her face ages before our eyes.

A View From The Bridge at Young Vic was one of the best nights of pure theatre I’ve ever had, so I will always think of Ivo Van Hove as a great theatre director but sadly I have to say that, if he likes big screens so much, it’s time he went to Hollywood.

All About Eve is performing at the Noel Coward theatre until 11 May 2019

Caroline, Or Change – Playhouse Theatre – review

Tony Kushner & Jeanine Tesori’s great musical

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Click here to watch my video review of Caroline, Or Change on One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Production shot of Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

I managed to miss Caroline, Or Change when it was launched at Chichester, and again when it moved to Hampstead Theatre. Now that it’s transferred to the West End, I wasn’t going to miss it again. So how did I find it when I finally caught up?

Well, I was a little disappointed but not by the musical which is great. I’ll explain my disappointment later. First the good news.

Tony Kushner’s lyrics are poetic and witty and punchy. Jeanine Tesori’s music goes straight to your heart. Whether it’s to make you happy, sad, worried or hopeful, Tesori is masterful. She composes in a range of appropriate styles- Motown, spirituals, klezmer. And it’s sung through, which means it’s a non-stop ride of emotion.

Then there’s the magnificent Sharon D Clarke, with her deep strong voice. You feel her pain and her rage. Her solid presence is so appropriate for the character who is at the centre of what happens.

Sharon D Clarke isn’t the only great singer/actor. Abiona Omonua as her daughter and Lauren Ward as the mistress of the house are both particularly impressive in a superb cast.

Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Caroline, Or Change is set in late 1963, in the South of the USA, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s a hundred years since the Civil War ended slavery yet black people are still subject to segregation and discrimination. A new generation is rebelling. Caroline represents the pivot point between the past and the future- not content with the situation but not a revolutionary either. As one of the songs says, ‘change come fast, change come slow but change is coming Caroline Thibodeaux’.

Caroline is a maid, trapped and worn down by her job. The story, though serious, is told in a quirky way. The domestic appliances talk to Caroline, as though she identifies with them. Michael Longhurst’s direction and Fly Davis’ design are wonderfully imaginative.

To add extra interest, her employers are not predictable white racist Southerners. They are a liberal Jewish family for whom the holocaust is fresh in the memory.

In this musical pain is personal as well as communal. The husband and son are grieving for a dead wife and mother, and the boy won’t accept the new wife (symbolised by a divided set), which is why he latches on to Caroline. She is in pain because her husband has gone. There’s a lot of feeling building up and ready to burst, both in the household and in society at large.

The word ‘change’ has a double meaning because Caroline is allowed to keep the change she finds in clothes when she’s doing the washing. She is humiliated both by the fact that she really needs what is loose change to her employers and by the condescending way in which she is being given it. This humiliation lights a fuse that burns until it sets off an explosion of feeling in the second act.

Caroline, Or Change offers a microcosm of a society in flux. It acknowledges that racism runs deep in society, among all ethnic groups, but it’s ultimately a story of hope. As Caroline puts it, in the stand-out song Lot’s Wife: ‘Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.’

For all that’s good about it, I wish I’d seen Caroline, Or Change in the smaller spaces of Chichester or Hampstead. The Playhouse doesn’t show the musical at its best because the large traditional proscenium arch stage of distances the emotions displayed in this intimate family drama with its low key incidents. Having said that, so many elements work that this is a show not to be missed.

Caroline, Or Change was performed at The Playhouse Theatre in London until 2 March 2019. 

Click play to watch Caroline, Or Change reviewed on One Minute Theatre Reviews 

The Cane – Royal Court – with Nicola Walker

Magnificent cast featuring Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed and Alun Armstrong

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

A much loved teacher is about retire but his home is under siege by children from his school. His estranged daughter comes to visit her parents. His regular use of the cane many years earlier has sparked the protest but when we discover that his school has been declared to be failing by Ofsted, it seems the protest may be more against the old ways of doing things- the patriarchial society in which men dominated through the use of violence.

I’m not sure how much I believed the set up or the ending but Mark Ravenhill has written a powerful script. It not only creates a tense atmosphere and powerful dialogue as the characters prowl round each other and take vicious swipes, it also provokes a lot of thought. It’s a tribute to it that the more you think about it, the more complex it seems.

Although this play is primarily an attack on the patriarchy, its strength is that it also asks questions about why people behave the way they do and whether today’s institutions and the people embracing them- in this case Academies and Ofsted- have more similarities than differences.

Production photo of Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Because, although the play is primarily about this teacher, it is also about any of us who work for or deal with institutions. The daughter is heavily involved in academies and describes an almost zombie like atmosphere of pupils facing front and silence in the corridors that is supposedly because the pupil comes first but actually sounds like the way the people come first in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

She talks about the way schools must conform to Ofsted’s way of looking at things and use their language. She has a rigid belief in her institution as much as her father believes in his.

Powerful script by Mark Ravenhill superbly directed by Vicky Featherstone

We gain insights into why the father, inheriting a culture of violence, continued it because it was his duty. This sounds very like the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuses of Nazi concentration camp soldiers. It’s clear he liked exercising the power. But his daughter is no angel. In fact, in many ways the play is about her because the older generation are on the way out. The question becomes, does the present generation with its controls and testing, have its own kind of cane and its own closed mindedness.

She is manipulative and coercive in trying to get her own way. She doesn’t want reconciliation, she wants revenge. We begin to suspect she has orchestrated the protest. We see her too flaring into violent language and acts of violence, not dissimilar to her father.

Production shot of Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court
Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

The action takes place in a sitting room, designed by Chloe Langford, that is almost bare of furniture and decoration, so it feels like a cage or a boxing ring. The protagonists are trapped there and nothing distracts from what the they say and do in Vicky Featherstone‘s brilliant production.

All three actors give subtle, nuanced performances. Maggie Steed as the oppressed, bullied, proudly loyal wife but also nasty when cornered.  Alun Armstrong with calm reasonableness, red faced anger and underlying weakness all somehow present whichever was being displayed at the time. And Nicola Walker so natural in the way she talks and moves, so incredibly still when she was observing the others, making her reasonable character’s unreasonable behaviour deeply disturbing.

At the end, the play is pulled back to look at the sins of the now ageing patriarchal generation but such is the intelligence of this fine play you question your own values.

The Cane continues at Royal Court Theatre London until 26 January 2019

Watch the YouTube review of The Cane starring Nicola Walker on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel below

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic – review

Stephen Tompkinson’s Scrooge is pitch perfect

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Stephen Tompkinson as Scrooge and Michael Rouse as marley in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic London
Stephen Tompkinson as Scrooge and Michael rouse as marley in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

As you’d expect from writer Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter And The Cursed Child and director Matthew Warchus who directed Matilda The Musical), their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is both magical and totally theatrical. In fact, it could only be performed in a theatre.

From the moment you walk in to the Old Vic auditorium, you are immersed in the atmospheric production, designed by Rob Howell. Members of the cast wander around offering clementines and mince pies (courtesy of Waitrose- that’s what I call sponsorship). The ceiling is filled with glowing lanterns that shine more and less brightly in synch with the narrative and that’s only one of many bewitching lighting effects designed by Hugh Vanstone.

The stage has been placed in the centre with seating all around and on stage. So characters appear from all directions and even in the circle.

Simon Baker‘s sound is all around too but particularly noticeable when it comes in a sinister crescendo from under the stage in supernatural moments, so loud that you vibrate in your seat.

A perfect Christmas entertainment

It’s a terrific idea to intersperse the performance with Christmas carols, accompanied by bell ringing, because they are about redemption and hope, just as the story is. This production certainly is, in the way Jack Thorne tells it and Stephen Tompkinson acts it.

Stephen Tompkinson in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic London
Stephen Tompkinson in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The story may be entirely familiar- the book has been around 175 years and there have been countless adaptations including one by The Muppets- but this production makes it feel as fresh as Waitrose mince pie.

Stephen Tompkinson‘s subtle Scrooge, unpleasant and misanthropic as he may be, retains a humanity that gives us hope that he can change. He has taken a wrong path and Jack Thorne’s script explores the reasons for this, primarily trying to avoid becoming like his cold, debt-ridden father. The father and Marley are both played by an excellent Michael Rouse.

We also see that Scrooge was capable of love, for his sister and for his first employer’s daughter Belle (a delightful performance from Francis MacNamee). We also see through the eyes of people like his nephew Fred (Eugene McCoy) and his employee Bob Cratchit (Peter Caulfield) who believe he has a good heart despite his treatment of them.

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic
A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The ghosts are terrific. First Marley in his chains, then Past, Present and Future (all played by women) who are both spooky and funny as they show Scrooge the effect of his life on others. The mortality of Tiny Tim is key to his conversion. The part is played by four different actors during the run. I saw Lenny Rush who was very moving in the role.

When Scrooge finally realises that he has wasted his life and ruined that of others by becoming obsessed with making money and by ignoring the effect of his business on others, the liberation is joyous. You can feel the weight lifting from Stephen Tompkinson’s shoulders as he sees the possibilities in helping others.

Food pours onto the stage, there is dancing, more singing and bell ringing, even snow. It is glorious and I, for one, didn’t want it to end. The Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is perfect Christmas entertainment.

A Christmas Carol starring Stephen Tompkinson is performing at The Old Vic until 19 January 2019

Watch below the review of A Christmas Carol on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The Messiah starring Hugh Dennis – review

Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah is heavenly 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Click here to watch The Messiah reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production shot of Hugh Dennis and John Marquez in The Messiah, directed by Patrick Barlow
Hugh Dennis and John Marquez in The Messiah

I wouldn’t say The Messiah, written and directed by Patrick Barlow, does justice to the nativity story but it certainly provides great Christmas entertainment.

It’s a tale of hubris as two fallible human beings with very few resources attempt to tell an epic story, stoically ploughing on when things go wrong. Both are aware of the other’s inadequacies but not their own, which leads to much verbal and physical humour.

Hugh Dennis is wonderful as the pompous, egocentric, bullying Maurice whose lack of skills in English or drama has not prevented him writing and directing this story of the birth of Jesus.

John Marquez is exceptionally funny as his put-upon fellow actor Ronald who is so absorbed in his part that he is oblivious to not only of his lack of skill but also whatever else might be going on. His clowning and timing are in the tradition of Norman Wisdom or Eric Morecambe.

John Marquez and Hugh Dennis are comedy gold

Typical is the moment when Ronald was playing the Virgin Mary and got so into his role as a nine month pregnant woman that he went off script to berate Joseph, played by Maurice, for leaving her on her own. And the confusion between a handle you hold and Handel the composer was comedy gold.

It must be the most challenging of roles for an actor to play an actor who can’t act but when it’s done as well as this, the reward is an evening of constant laughter.

You have to admire these characters’ determination to create something meaningful despite their limited talent and resources – yes I know you’re thinking a bit like a YouTube blogger but actually like all humans. As the performance reaches an inevitable crisis, there also comes a recognition- appropriate to the time of year- that love is the greatest gift they and we possess.

Production shot of John Marquez, Hugh Dennis & Lesley Garrett in The Messiah by Patrick Barlow
John Marquez, Hugh Dennis & Lesley Garrett in The Messiah

The third member of the cast is a singer who provides appropriate songs at various points. It was a bonus to see and hear the great  in this role although I would have liked to see her more integrated into the comedy.

For me, The Messiah stands alongside Nativity! as one of the funniest, most uplifting Christmas entertainments I’ve seen.

I saw the last performance of The Messiah at Richmond Theatre prior to its Christmas run at The Other Palace in London which ended on 5 January 2019

Watch The Messiah reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Don Carlos starring Tom Burke – Review

Tom Burke is mesmerising in this powerful production

Production photo of Tom Burke in Don Carlos- 2018 production
Tom Burke in Don Carlos. Photo: The Other Richard

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Schiller’s 1787 play about about love, freedom and a revolt against totalitarianism is given a powerful, grippiing production by actor Tom Burke and director Gadi Roll‘s new theatre company Ara.

The plot concerns King Phillip II of Spain and his son Don Carlos in 1567. Love drives much of the play, the love of father and son, who have become estranged because of the love the son feels for his stepmother Elizabeth whom the King in effect stole from him, and also the love between Don Carlos and his friend the Marquis of Posa.

Click here to watch Don Carlos reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Interweaved with this is a political element in which the totalitarian  government of the king is challenged by the more romantic Don Carlos and his freethinking friend Posa.

There are misunderstandings and sacrifices that add to the drama. And it all happens in the shadow of the Spanish inquisition.

There’s a lot of conversation about the importance of freedom and the wrongs of autocratic leaders that is still relevant today. And the words are forceful in this modern, poetic translation by Robert David MacDonald.

Gadi Roll’s dramatic, stripped back production

Gadi Roll’s dramatic, stripped back production concentrates our attention on those words. The design by Rosanna Vize is a bare black set with black costumes. The actors are almost entirely lit by spotlights that pick out faces and concentrate our attention on what they’re saying. And Gadi Roll’s use of a discordant soundscape is highly effective.

This production has been sold very much on the star quality of Tom Burke which may be why, confronted with so much talking- and it is over 3 hours long- quite a few members of the audience left. In fact, Tom Burke gives a mesmerising performance as Posa. He exudes an inner power and his passion for his cause and for his friend is palpable. 

Darrell D'Silva in Don Carlos
Darrell D’Silva in Don Carlos. Photo: The Other Richard

Since this production puts acting at its core, I must also praise Samuel Valentine as the emotionally unstable, indecisive Don Carlos, Kelly Gough as the conflicted Elizabeth and particularly Darrell D’Silva as king Phillip whose struggle with his feelings and emotional collapse is extraordinary to witness.

There is a riveting scene at the end of Act One between Posa and Philip in which the former speaks frankly to the King about the benefits of allowing freethinking to ‘restore the nobility of man’. The King, even as he argues, is captivated.

For me, this was pure theatre and an engrossing evening.

Don Carlos is performing at Nuffield Theatres Southampton until 3 November 2018 and then at the Rose Theatre Kingston-upon-Thames from 6 to 17 November.

Watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube review of Don Carlos below

Amendment 29 October 2018- changed ‘engrossing’ in first paragraph to ‘gripping’

A Very Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent – Bridge Theatre

Jim Broadbent excels in Martin Mcdonagh’s latest black comedy 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Production shot of Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh‘s latest black comedy, is very very very dark and also very very very funny.

The lead character is the Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen is portrayed as an egocentric idiot. It is clear from the start that the true writer of his terrifying tales is a woman from the Congo whom he keeps in a cage and calls Marjory.

Click here to watch the YouTube review

Hans loves the public’s adulation but at a public reading of The Little Mermaid he can’t even pronounce the word ‘ether’. Behind the perfect avuncular face is a very unpleasant man totally lacking in self awareness. Jim Broadbent gives us a comic tour de force.

Production photo of Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Marjory is far more intelligent, erudite and sensitive than him. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional theatre debut, has a quiet authority that complements Jim Broadbent’s jolly but insecure sadist. She has travelled back in time in an effort to prevent a massacre in which the Belgian colonialists murdered 10 million of her people.

A macabre, bizarre, exhilarating ride

She has seen humanity’s heart of darkness (which incidentally is what Joseph Conrad called his novel about colonialists in the Congo) and it comes out in her fairy tales. Hans wishes she could provide happier endings but doesn’t interfere, except to censor her title The Little Black Mermaid which to him is an oxymoron.

At least one theme of the play is nineteenth century Europeans’ attitude to their colonies, which they saw as resources to be exploited to enrich the West. The title A Very Very Very Dark Matter may not only refer to the dark content of the play but also to dark matter itself which scientists believe makes up 80% of the universe but is invisible even though the 20% we can see can’t exist without it, in the way that the third world’s resources made the western world’s success possible.

Hans, as what he calls her ‘looky aftery’ person, represents European exploiters of the colonies. He has no concept of his cruelty, even though he has cut off one of her feet!  Even his efforts to be kind or provide an upbeat ending are naïve at best, ignorant at worst.

A Jeeves & Wooster for our times

Together Marjorie and Hans are a Jeeves and Wooster for our times. And this pair are as funny as Wodehouse’s servant and master, albeit less actual fun, given our modern awareness of the evil way in which human beings have behaved toward each other.

There are many hilarious moments, perhaps the best of which is when Hans visits Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin as he insists on calling him. He suspects that Dickens too has a ghost writer from the Congo. Andersen can’t comprehend even the most explicit insults directed at him- and the language is both modern and coarse (‘You’re shitting me’ is one of the milder phrases).

Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Mr and Mrs Dickens, wonderfully played by Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington, exhibit a shocking but significant contempt for their children- they don’t even know their names- and there’s even time for a joke about a skeleton that is both metaphorically and literally in a cupboard.

Anna Fleischle’s set is a superb attic full of dark corners and hanging puppets, very like a scene from one of Andersen’s sinister fairy tales.

If there is a fault, it’s that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a bit light on plot. I would have liked to have been more excited about the fate of Marjory and about whether Hans learns from his experience. Or simply a few more twists. Otherwise I can’t praise the comedy or Matthew Dunster‘s production enough

A Very Very Very Dark Matter can be seen at Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019

Watch below for the review of A Very Very Very Dark Matter the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Some minor amendments made on 28 October 2018- paragraphs 6 and 7 swapped and subheading added.

I’m Not Running by David Hare with Siân Brooke

David Hare’s new play is contrived, predictable & flat 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Production shot of Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell in I'm Not Running at National Theatre London
Sian Brooke & Alex Hassell in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

When the National Theatre announces a new season, it’s always a challenge to decide which events to spend one’s time and money on. But a new play by one of our greatest living playwrights David Hare starring a fine actor like Siân Brooke and directed by the renowned Neil Armfield seemed a safe bet.

So you can imagine my disappointment when confronted by a contrived plot with a weighted conflict and a predictable end, not to mention an acting performance that offered none of the charisma that the role seemed to require. To be fair to Siân Brooke, it may be the script that was lacking rather than her performance.

Click here to watch the review of I’m Not Running on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The plot concerns a clash between a doctor who has run a single issue political campaign to save a hospital and subsequently becomes an MP and a career politician with whom she has, shall we say, history. By the way, Alex Hassell as her ‘sparring partner’ gives a bravura performance ranging from tears to tantrums.

The play jumps back and forth between the present day and the events that led up to it. We see the main character developing her political understanding to the point where she is considering running- or not running- for the Labour Party leadership.

A big auditorium but not a major play

David Hare tries to help our political understanding too. So we learn how the personal and the political are connected, and how we need political parties, in this case the Labour Party, if you seriously want to change things. At Westminster, the play says, we need less towing the party line, less putting efficiency before people and less male ego, and conversely more passion, more belief, more women.

Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I'm Not Running
Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

The play takes its time and, if you’re not interested in politics, you may find it dull- although there are some juicy confrontations between the two main characters. The problem for me is, the arguments always seem one sided, so the excitement never mounts. Far from being carried along to the climax, I had plenty of time to consider how unlikely the ending is.

Although the play is about politics, there are no big speeches. It is an intimate play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two people in small rooms. The Lyttleton stage is too big for it. Ralph Myers’ set comprises a simple triangular white room which spins round nicely to frame the action but the large auditorium seems to create performances that are a bit more shouty than they should be.

Last year I saw both Labour Of Love and This House by James Graham, both about Labour Party politics. I was far more affected by his portrayal of impassioned but flawed people who believe in their cause and understand the need to compromise and work together for change in a democratic system than by David Hare’s fantasy world.

I’m Not Running is performing at the National Theatre until 31 January. There will be an NT Live broadcast of the final performance.

Watch below to see the YouTube review of I’m Not Running on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel