I have often argued amongst friends that we don’t take satire seriously in British theatre. If you scratch the surface of one of our radical playwrights or directors, you will find they’re actually more interested in squirrelling their way into The Establishment than tearing it down. I may have to revise my opinion, however, because Accidental Death of An Anarchist, newly transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre to the Lyric in Hammersmith, is a sure-fire, fearlessly political, no holds-barred, angry hit of a show that leaves my theory in tatters.
Originally penned by the husband and wife anti-fascist team of Dario Fo and Franca Rame, the play is based on a very real 1969 Italian case of police corruption. Regularly revived internationally since, this latest version is adapted by TV and radio comedy favourite Tom Basden. In a ridiculous stroke of synchronicity, it opens in London just as the Met Police seems set to unravel in more public disgrace too. What could be better? Well, it’s ridiculously good. Hilarious, in fact. In all my theatre-going, I don’t think I’ve experienced a play text so tightly packed with fresh contemporary jokes. There is nowhere to hide from the onslaught; not that you’d want to because the hit rate is breathtakingly high.
The genius of the original play, fully embraced here by Basden and director Daniel Raggett, is its satirical barbs fall from the mouth of a self-confessed maniac; the ultimate in unreliable narrators. To add another layer of fun, the maniac suffers a very peculiar delusion – he believes he is an actor with an audience to entertain. This is good, silly fun on one level, but it also means the play ceases to be about the investigation of a crime and becomes an exploration of the act of performance itself. We are watching a madman create a story on the spot through madcap improv yet also told there’s a script and the action has been rehearsed. We are shown throughout, in a delicious set of sight gags, that Anna Reid’s bright, clever set is definitely, categorically fake. Fine, but why does everyone still behave as if it is on the fourth floor of Police headquarters and a fall from the window would be fatal? The whole thing acts as an explicit warning that we should not trust narratives, especially those we’re told by the powerful.
Never off the stage, Daniel Rigby, in a dizzying and dazzling star turn as the prophetic Maniac, runs rings around everyone and everything. A natural clown, he seems to elicit laughter with every fibre of his being, whether he’s delivering one of his many long tongue-twisting speeches or revealing (minor spoiler alert) an unlikely prosthetic leg. The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Ruby Thomas’s lefty blogger journalist, entering carrying her over-priced farmer’s market shopping and taking a pouting selfie, may initially seem a slightly caricatured outsider to this world, but no matter. She is quickly thrown into the chaos with everyone else.
Good satire ought to be a weapon, of course. Here, the target is systematic police failure. The maniac might be mad, but he knows where all the skeletons are buried and, in between the laughs, we hear facts that occasionally cause audible intakes of breath from the audience. 1,800 disciplinary investigations into staff misconduct in the Met, for example, led to only 13 recorded censures. The headline figure is that 1,850 people have died mysteriously in UK police custody since 1990. The sobering message we take home is that our complacency is costing lives.
Written by Dario Fo & Franca Rame
Adapted by Tom Basden
Directed by Daniel Ragett
Set & Costume by Anna Reid
Lighting Design by Jai Morjaria
Produced by: Sheffield Theatres and Lyric Hammersmith in association with Playful Productions
Accidental Death of An Anarchist will transfer To Theatre Royal Haymarket from 12 June to 9 September 2023. Tickets can be purchased via LoveTheatre here.