Accidental Death of An Anarchist
Dario Fo and Franca Rame in a new adaptation by Tom Basden
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and Sheffield Theatres in association with Playful Productions
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More than fifty years since Nobel-prize-winning Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame wrote Accidental Death of An Anarchist, amazingly not much seems to have changed regarding police corruption. The Italian partisan protest song “Bella Ciao”, closing and opening the acts, is a nod to the play’s origins. And a call to arms?
A co-production with Sheffield Theatres, where it was highly praised, brings the show to London with the original cast, tweaking it to fit the metropolitan locale. It is simply brilliant and deserves a long run in town.
Adapted from the original by Tom Basden, directed by Daniel Raggett, it is comic actor Daniel Rigby who carries the show—without denigrating the rest of the tightly knit team. They are all excellent but he is inspirational, inexhaustible. He is the hyperactive Maniac. Maniacs or holy idiots often see what the rest of us don’t. And this is theatre of the absurd in which everything is topsy-turvy.
It is The Maniac, a man of many disguises, not least that of a judge come to review an old case of the Italian anarchist who jumped or fell or was pushed out of the fourth floor of a police station. Hmm and the police buy his bonkers spiel… Not all, Inspector Burton (Howard Ward) knows “he is insain” (sic), but no one pays attention to him.
Stand up comedy of the Eric Morecambe variety ensues with lots of improv work by the looks of it. Rigby plays directly to us—there is no fourth wall. His jacket gets chucked into the stalls, sweets get thrown—it could be panto, Italian satire given an English twist. Punch and Judy blended with commedia dell’arte—same thing.
The comic lines come thick and fast—there are many theatrical references and quotes—words, words, words… it’s impossible to make a note of them. Raucous comedy and raucous laughter, it reaches all the parts many don’t. What a feat of memory. Two hours with interval dashes by. Oh, and there’s a strobe-lit chase round the office.
But the underlying political punch as in most satires is serious and to the point. Statistics since 1990 show that 1,850 people have died in police custody—this is writ large on the stage in lights at the end. With a contact for Inquest, a charity which gives assistance in the investigation of these deaths.
There’s nothing like taking the piss with serious intent and outrageous comic lines. The fake judge convinces the gullible police, Superintendent Curry (Tony Gardener the dim Ernie Wise fall guy to Morecambe’s wit), macho Detective Daisy (Jordan Metcalfe), young Constable Joseph (Shane David-Joseph) and Constable Jackson (Ruby Thomas doubling as Sloaney journalist Fi Phelan)…
But the real judge (or is he?) turns up at the end as in Gogol’s Inspector General—who are we laughing at but ourselves… there’s always a stone in the sock, or in this case a false leg. The jokes are furious but so are the pinpoint punchlines. Police having lessons in “unconscious bias”… all very now. Protests on Clapham Common… "Defund the police”… undercover police who have babies with their duped partners… Just read the papers, material galore.
Anna Reid’s crazy costume and office set designs are efficiently sharp (a 3 turns to a 4 by simple means to show change of floor level and gets a huge laugh), but it’s Rigby in many guises (bishop—Catholic church gets a knock) who steals the show. He tumbles, he draws on the walls (visual aids to his detective theories), he climbs the walls, his physical comedy is unflagging and his cheeky chappy grin lights up the auditorium.
Confession: I’ve always loved Fo and Rame’s work—they have that genius, childlike quality that many comedians have, seeing the world without adult filter. Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It comes close. Music hall comedians of old used to send up society and their betters. Protest disguised as farce.
The Maniac (with his own sound system in his prominent Liberty bag) takes the police on an absurd journey, getting them to replay the various versions of events, exposes their lies, rewrites, cover-ups, and the bonkers idiocy of falling for a conman who nearly has them replaying the fall out of the window.
Accidental Death of An Anarchist may be Italian, but this channels British comedy at its best. Fo won the Nobel for emulating “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” A tour de force performance, a great night out… A must-see.
Reviewer: Vera Liber