All writers have a secret method that gives their work an extra something special. For some it’s an exercise regime, for others it might be a particular place they like to sit, but for writers of the 19th century, A Very Very Very Dark matter posits that it was locking a short black woman (a ”pygmy”) in a box and stealing her stories. Yes, that’s right: locking a magical black woman in a box, please let that sit, and stealing her stories. A Very Very Very Dark Matter could have been an interesting take on colonialism and the erasure of African literature, the exploitation of black bodies, or an a-bit-too-on-the-nose inversion of the magical negro trope in which the white protagonist is aggressively awful. It unfortunately dips its toes into all these pools and chooses instead to focus on the low-hanging fruit of comedy, based on country stereotypes and swearing children, which is a darn shame.
Jim Broadbent is the entitled narcissistic Hans Christian Andersen, with bounds of self-importance and no talent to match. Uncouth and lacking self-awareness, the children’s author loathes children and revels in the praises offered by his fan mail. The source of his brilliance is the imprisoned Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles) who he has renamed because he can’t be bothered to pronounce her Congolese name. But ever the perfectionist, despite the stories being a hit with children, he insists that Marjory ignores the fact that she’s locked in a box and writes something more “upbeat”. There’s also time travel, a confusing and unnecessary red pepper style voiceover and blood-covered Belgians who’ve come through time to wreak revenge. Anne Fleischle’s set delicately skirts the line between Christmas whimsy and Halloween creepiness, the paned windows and puppets dangling from the ceiling by their necks hinting at the darkness behind these beloved childhood stories.
Broadbent holds the fort as the simplistic Andersen with eyes sheening with psychopathic glee. Unable to read the mood in any room ever, Broadbent’s Andersen delivers many of the play’s best lines and manages to create this caricature without making him too ridiculous. Ackles solidly delivers Marjory’s weariness at her circumstances and the bastardisation of her work, with the audience lamenting that The Little Black Mermaid never was. It is however, baffling that instead of exploring her mission of travelling through time and trying to stop the cruel murder of millions of innocent Congolese people, we instead witness dinner with Charles Dickens’s shouty swearing family.
The decision to make this specific brand of non-PC humour the lifeblood blood of A Very Very Very Dark Matter also distorts its anti-colonial message at times. It is jarring to have characters question the presence of statues of King Leopold II, only to later have to hear a joke premised on the fact that someone has had an “affair” with a woman they effectively forcibly imprisoned. The fact that this affair may not have been consensual is never called into question; it’s just another brick in a wall of cheap jokes.
It’s hard not to laugh at parts of a A Very Very Very Dark Matter. The lines are witty and there is the pretext of a colonial critique which is supposed to make these jokes ok. What there is not, however, is effective room for pause, though a rushed attempt is made at the end. It is instead a parade of terrible people, saying and doing terrible things, whilst commenting that they are less terrible than those at the forefront of colonial oppression, with limited reckoning on the horizon. Perhaps that is the dark matter that we’re dealing with.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is playing at the Bridge Theatre until 6 January. For more information and tickets, click here.