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A Very Very Very Dark Matter – Bridge Theatre

Small skeletons. Time travel. Bloody Belgians.

Writer Martin McDonagh kicked off 2018 with one of the best movies of the year – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – and ends it with one of its weirdest plays.

Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Andersen, whose Very Very Very Dark secret is that he keeps imprisoned in a box in his attic in Copenhagen a small Congolese woman who writes all of his stories.

As if that’s not horrific enough, he’s also cut one of her legs off. Marjory, as he calls her, is played by newcomer Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles. It’s an unforgettable performance in a play full of moments you’ll never unsee.

There are laughs aplenty to be had amid the horror. Not least Andersen’s visit to an effing and blinding Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) with a dark secret of his own.

What’s it all about? Colonialism (the blood-drenched Belgians)? Fake news? Who cares? It’s got a haunted concertina. Somehow I haven’t yet got round to mentioning the gravel-throated narration by Tom Waits.

By the end it all feels like some kind of twisted pantomime. Perhaps that’s why I’ve booked to see it again at Christmas.

Company – Gielgud Theatre

With its gender swapped characters and contemporary tinkering, this 1970 Broadway musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth feels like it was written last week.

Company tells the story of Bobbie (Rosalie Craig), a New Yorker whose singleton status at 35 is the main topic of conversation among her colourful circle of friends.

I’ve been a fan of Rosalie Craig since I first saw her in the Tori Amos musical The Light Princess at the National Theatre where she spent a fair amount of time singing upside down.

She’s no less versatile and impressive here as the bemused outsider looking on as her friends’ relationships play out. Often spotlit, Craig literally glows on stage in her red dress. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. Especially when she’s clutching a birthday balloon big enough to carry her into the upper circle.

A strong supporting cast includes Patty LuPone as much-married Joanne, whose song Ladies Who Lunch will surely be a nightly showstopper, while Mel Giedroyc’s jujitsu-loving Sarah provides a lot of the biggest laughs in Act One.

Almost worth the price of admission alone is the show’s most ingeniously staged setpiece in which Jonathan Bailey’s gay character Jamie delivers a super-fast song about pre-nuptial jitters (Getting Married Today) amid frantic activity in his kitchen.

Bunny Christie’s clever design sees the story unfold inside a set of gliding neon-edged boxes which frame New York’s assorted rooms, exteriors and train carriages.

With Sondheim’s blessing, director Marianne Elliott had a vision and it worked: this reinvented show is a joy from start to finish.

I’m Not Running – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

And so to another drama at the National Theatre about politics and rocky relationships (see previous review), except this one is firmly set in contemporary Britain.

David Hare’s I’m Not Running focuses on Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke), a doctor whose campaign to save a hospital leads to a career in politics and her decision on whether or not to run for the leadership of the Labour Party.

The play begins with an amusing exchange between Gibson’s campaign manager Sandy (played by the always excellent Joshua McGuire) and a pack of political hacks at a press conference. No, he won’t be answering any questions, he says, before proceeding to do just the opposite.

The play moves backwards and forwards over some 20 years to examine Gibson’s life, her motivations and her complicated relationship with university ex Jack Gould (Alex Hassell), a Labour Party stalwart.

Sensibly, Hare places all of these political shenanigans in an alternate reality. There’s no mention of Brexit or Corbyn (though perhaps it’s no coincidence that the hospital that Gibson saves is Corby).

But for all its clever one liners, and an impressive revolving set with giant talking head projections, I’m Not Running is hard to connect with over its two hours and 40 minutes. There’s a genuinely affecting scene between a young version of Gibson and her alcoholic mother, but by the time the play reached its predictable final line I was glad to be running for the last train.

Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre (Olivier)

First things first. This production of Shakespeare’s tragedy in the Olivier is a colossal three hours and a half hours long. That’s the same as watching Carry On Cleo TWICE with enough time in between for a leisurely bathe in ass’s milk. But what a wonderful theatrical journey this is. Hildegard Bechtler’s swirling set transports us effortlessly from palatial Alexandria to a hi-tech Rome fizzing with TV screens, while one stunning transition conjures Pompey’s massive battleship out of the floor.

Director Simon Godwin makes the clever choice to begin at the end, with [spoiler alert] Caesar (Tunji Kasim) announcing over the body of Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) that she will be buried alongside Antony (Ralph Fiennes). Then we slip back in time to see the Egyptian queen, who has remained prostrate on stage, coming to life in her lover’s arms.

The casting is magnificent. I’d been excited by the initial announcement back in October 2017 and wasn’t disappointed. Fiennes blazes as both “strumpet’s fool” and tough Roman general. But Okonedo shines even brighter. She flits between witty, playful, moody, and dangerous. The scene in which she angrily tries to drown an unfortunate messenger bearing bad news is a hoot. She’s surely going to win awards. Her costumes, by Evie Gurney, are fab.

And yes, that’s a real snake at the end. It curled right on cue. I suspect it has theatrical asp-irations.