Wednesday 29 March 2023

Theatre review: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

The Italian satirist Dario Fo is considered one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century, but his work is very rarely seen in London. The new version of Fo and Franca Rame's most famous work, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, both makes it seem incredible that their names aren't better-known, and at the same time provides an explanation for why they're rarely on our stages: Making their stuff work as well as it does here is a Herculean feat that could easily go very wrong. The latest transfer to suggest Robert Hastie's Sheffield Theatres is the venue to watch at the moment, Tom Basden's adaptation takes the 1970 play about police brutality and gives it a painfully up-to-date relocation to the present-day Metropolitan Police, with barely a real-life scandal or damning statistic left unmentioned. Daniel Rigby plays The Maniac, a compulsive liar who takes the quote "All the world's a stage" literally - he believes he's got a permanent audience.

The Maniac loves to impersonate different characters, and his arrest by Inspector Burton (Howard Ward) is just his latest brush with the law. He always gets off though, because he has a note from a psychiatrist saying he's insane and not responsible for his actions (the psychiatrist is also one of his personas.)

When he gives Burton the slip, he ends up on the 4th floor, the notorious site of an "accident" in which a train driver accused of terrorism either jumped or fell - but definitively wasn't pushed - out of the window. In his new persona as a judge, he reopens the case, questioning Superintendent Curry (Tony Gardner,) Detective Daisy (Jordan Metcalfe) and Constable Joseph (Shane David-Joseph.) The Maniac alternates frenetically between threatening the officers with becoming scapegoats for all the Met's scandals, and helping them to come up with increasingly bizarre and elaborate stories for how they couldn't possibly have had a hand in the suspect's death (despite calling an ambulance five minutes before he was seen falling to the ground.)

Basden's script and Daniel Raggett's production manage the difficult feat of balancing absolutely scathing satire with the broadest comedy - this is political clowning, and the big laughs start within seconds of the lights coming up, as the Maniac soundtracks his own interrogation with the Line of Duty theme. Rigby is of course a natural clown and I can't think of many people who could pull off the arch comedy, audience asides and outrageous disguises as naturally as he can. The speed of his performance and the production is extraordinary, taking us from one surreal setup to the next, bombarding us with farcical flights of fancy, and memorably taking us from the 3rd to the 4th floor of the police station in a hilariously theatrical, lo-tech adaptation of Anna Reid's set.

But for every moment of broad comedy there's one of viciously biting satire: Fo and Rame's play was a respnse to a real case, so it's a natural fit for Basden to overlay it with real modern references that encompass everything from the astonishingly low conviction rate of officers accused of violence in custody, to dodgy WhatsApp groups, racial profiling and selfies with murder victims. And the bigger picture is also in view, whether it's the budget cuts that put internal investigations on the back burner, or the image of Suella Braverman at Dover with a BB gun, shooting holes in rubber dinghies. When a journalist (Ruby Thomas) arrives to do an exposé on the suspicious death, it's not long before she's actively involved in the cover-up too.

With the Maniac's belief that he has an audience meaning he can constantly break the fourth wall, Basden also gets the opportunity to make a lot of meta references to the play itself, its continued relevance after more than 50 years, and the singing of "Bella Ciao" at Fo's funeral. But while Rigby's performance rightly gets the attention, I couldn't help thinking the rest of the cast were putting up as much of a show of stamina in going the whole two hours maintaining their straight faces. The play could easily feel like an odd throwback but broadly funny, scathingly satirical and with a genuine fury barely beneath the surface, this Accidental Death of an Anarchist hits 2023 with all the impact it must have had in 1970.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo and Franca Rame in a version by Tom Basden is booking until the 8th of April at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.


  1. Great review - as ever. Will you be seeing A Little Death? Really looking forward to a detailed Alert!!!!

  2. Replies
    1. I've got a ticket for it; whether I can make it all the way through is another matter. I've already had my pre-show information email that basically says "This will be really unpleasant to watch. No, seriously, more than you think."

  3. You can make it! Luke's ''Alert' is in the second half! Really looking forward to reading it!

    1. Obviously I would like to argue that I'm not shallow enough for that to keep me in a show if I hated it, but if you know me well enough to try and sell me on Luke Thompson rather than James Norton, I doubt it'd be particularly convincing.