This review is from the Lyric Hammersmith in March. ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ will transfer to the West End in June.
If you’re struggling to manage your misery at the general state of the UK, then invigorating political comedy ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ is both much cheaper than a therapy session and vastly more entertaining. Writer Tom Basden and director Daniel Raggett have managed to pull off something nothing less than brilliant. They’ve created an adaptation of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s 1970s Italian farce that’s simultaneously packed with righteous anger at our country’s political establishment, and so funny that even the most earnest champagne socialist will spit out their drink laughing.
Bafta-winning actor Daniel Rigby delivers a toweringly good performance as he presides over the mayhem as ‘The Maniac’. He plays a bumptious fantasist who believes he’s constantly performing for an audience that no one else can see, allowing him to constantly break the fourth wall by vamping for laughs or even throwing sweets, panto-style. In the past, he’s impersonated doctors and lawyers. Now, he’s taking on the criminal justice system by pretending to be a judge who turns up at a police station to investigate the mysterious death of an anarchist in custody. It soon becomes clear that the police are putting on a show of their own, rearranging the facts like so much stage furniture, and delivering fictitious monologues designed to drive suspects into a state of ‘raptus’ (sudden suicide).
It might not sound especially funny but the combined talents of Basden, Raggett and Rigby make sure the audience is constantly in stitches. The Maniac manipulates the police by dragging ludicrous wigs out of his box of tricks, puncturing their pride, or delivering compliments that dance on the edge of sincerity. He likens the superintendent (Tony Gardner) to ‘a colonial hero, winning over the natives with ball games and starvation’, gives Detective Daisy (Jordan Metcalfe) some scathing director’s notes on his attempts to do a tough-guy act, and relentlessly takes the piss out of green-around-the-gills constable Joseph (Shane David-Joseph). As this trio of incompetent functionaries are finally put in their place, statistics on the real-life toll of police incompetence are projected on to Anna Reid’s closely naturalistic set design.
Contemporary references like this can feel tacked on. But the late Dario Fo was both a playwright and a dogged Marxist activist against the Italian fascist regime. At the age of 79, he even ran for mayor of Milan, drumming up support by staging political shows at the city’s biggest theatre. So it’s totally fitting that Basden’s adaptation bristles with references to real-life, UK-specific police injustices – racial profiling, deaths in custody, undercover agents who father children under false identities – while still maintaining a sense of its Italian anti-fascist origins that culminates in a group rendition of protest anthem ‘Bella Ciao’.
If London right now is a pressure cooker full of red-hot political anger, then ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ is an all-singing, all-pratfalling safety vent. Go to laugh and to rage, just as its author intended.