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.