Thursday, 7 May 2015

Theatre review: The Angry Brigade

Although a new James Graham play is always worth a look, when The Angry Brigade premiered last year I decided against going all the way to Watford for it, taking the gamble that it would probably make it to London sooner or later. And so it has, playing a season at the Bush during the election, which feels appropriate: Even though it takes its story from 1971 and only tangentially features any politicians, the Britain the titular organisation live in has a lot in common with 2015. The Angry Brigade feels almost like two different plays: In the first act, we meet a specially-assembled police investigation team, led by the newly-promoted Smith (Mark Arends,) who's been given the task of finding a terrorist organisation who've sent threatening letters against the pillars of traditional society. A couple of their explosive devices have also been discovered, and it's only a matter of time before one of them goes off.

Harry Melling, Pearl Chanda and Lizzy Watts join Arends as the rest of the team, with Melling and Watts also jumping in and out of character as a variety of suspects and witnesses.

James Grieve's production certainly doesn't lack for energy, as the young team start to set aside their preconceptions about how to run an investigation, and try to get into the minds of the Brigade. The play's opening, with Melling in strong comic form as a senior officer setting Smith's team up while rhapsodising about dunking biscuits into tea, sets out its stall as not being a traditional political play. It's a streak of invention that carries on right through to the interval, even if the striking closing image owes a lot to London Road.

It's Chanda's turn to shine in the second act, when the actors become the two men and two women behind the terrorist group, and we go back to tell the story from their perspective. She plays Anna, who begins as enthusiastic for the cause as any of the others, if not more so. But even as her sweet relationship with Melling's Jimmy turns sour, so she faces the reality that their form of rebellion is a blunt instrument that doesn't just target the guilty; as well as the fact that not all the things society holds up as desirable - such as a loving relationship - are necessarily bad.

This second act is more of a straightforward drama, that suffers slightly in that its story is easier to predict - especially since we've seen it from a different perspective already (some lovely quiet callbacks to that first act though - Watts' Hilary biting the sellotape and inadvertently giving the police a vital clue.) What's less predictable are the narrative and stylistic flourishes Graham and Grieve have added to it, the cast smashing around the filing cabinets that form the centrepiece of Lucy Osborne's set, flashing back and forwards to different scenes. It's a bold piece of theatre that cleverly uses its cast doubling to emphasise how little real difference there is between the rebels and those hunting them; and with tonight's devastating election results, you have to wonder how long it is before someone starts getting angry again.

The Angry Brigade by James Graham is booking until the 13th of June at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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