13 March 2023
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST (Lyric Hammersmith Theatre) Review
This is a fresh adaptation of the 1970 play by the Italian playwright Dario Fo (who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1997). This political farce was inspired by the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan and the subsequental death of Giuseppe Pinelli whilst in police custody. The bomb went off at the National Agricultural Bank headquarters, killing almost 20 people and wounding just shy of 100. More bombs exploded later that day, all later claimed by the far-right “New Order” terrorist group. Pinelli was a railroad worker and a member of a Milanese anarchist association. Although he didn’t have links to “New Order”, he was arrested alongside other anarchists, questioned by police, and seen falling out the 4th floor window of the local police station. The police officers who interrogated him were investigated a few years later, but the death was ruled accidental nonetheless.
I haven’t read the original play (in English, let alone in Italian), but, having seen some critical reception comments for it, it appears to have been a clever political farce. Funny, of course, but, most importantly, clever and thought-provoking. To be fair, I read these after getting home from the show, as I was only vaguely aware of the finer points of the plot, so didn’t want a refresher to ruin the plot twists and surprises.
At the heart of the play is a man known as “The Maniac” (don’t worry, no spoilers). He is at a police station on account of having been impersonating a doctor. During the questioning, he finds out that this is the very station from the window of which an anarchist has recently fallen to his death and that, although the original enquiry ruled the death accidental, a second enquiry is about to take place. The Maniac decides to muscle his way into it, and hilarity ensues.
First things first: Daniel Rigby (who I last saw being incredibly funny in “Noises Off” on this very stage) is undisputedly the king of physical comedy. He is funny in both face and movement, and his Maniac is just the right mix of looney and likeable. When he balances on the bench with that “will I fall or won’t I” look on his face, you know you’re seeing something special, and when he flips overhead whilst holding a chair, you can’t believe that just happened in front of you. The non-stop one-liners and side jokes detracted from his performance in my opinion. He is very good at what he does, and he really didn’t need the “let’s make sure the audience really gets the joke” heavy-handed text. The whole panto/sweeties bit was cringeworthy.
The police commissioner is played by Tony Gardner, who I’d never seen on stage, but had seen and loved in “Lead Balloon” and “Last Tango in Halifax” on the telly. He is also brilliantly funny here, but in a very different style compared to Rigby, which makes the two complementary, so the two men never compete for laughs. Gardner’s commissioner is a total weasel, but in such a delicious way, you love to hate him. As the recollection of the anarchist’s death gets more and more ridiculous, Gardner gets more invested in it, which, in turn, layers the comedy perfectly.
Jordan Metcalfe is the other hapless policeman who was present at the time of the anarchist’s death, and he is significantly better here than he was in “Jack Absolute” at the National. As his tough guy attitude gets slowly dismantled by The Maniac, the police looks more and more incompetent, yet you can’t help but laugh (except for trying-a-bit-too-hard one-liners, which is where you can’t help but cringe).
Howard Ward and Shane David-Joseph (as two more policemen) and Ruby Thomas (as the hipster journalist) provide able comedic support.
Anna Reid’s set design is nothing short of joyous. The creativeness of getting The Maniac up a floor is brilliant. That said, her costumes for Rigby are heavy, and he is visibly sweaty for most of the show. Something lighter and/or ice packs in the clothes would probably go a long way.
Daniel Raggett’s direction is inspired. He makes the best use of everyone, and there are lovely flashes of ingenuity: when The Maniac starts writing on the board, you can’t begin to imagine how it ends. The rave rendition of “Bella Ciao” gives Bregovic (who probably popularised it the most, despite it being a 19th century Italian protest folk song) a run for his money and is worth the price of admission alone, doubly so if you consider that it’s taken to represent freedom and resistance being sung by a corrupt police establishment here. The one bit I didn’t like was the “he is insain [sic]” sigh. Ward holds it up to try and clue other policemen to The Maniac’s madness. I asked him after the show as to the spelling, and he said that was done to indicate that his policeman wasn’t all too clever. Huh. Did we really need that? I certainly was thinking not, “dumb policeman can’t spell”, but “what’s the point of this”… That aside, my biggest criticism of directing here is that, at times, the whole production feels like a Daniel Rigby spectacular. It’s like someone said, “Wow, Rigby is great at physical comedy, so what can we put together to showcase it? The text doesn’t matter, so long as it’s an opportunity for him to be funny.” I feel Raggett could’ve/should’ve done more to let the script shine. Further to that, there is waaay too much panto here. With someone like Rigby at the helm, there is really no need for talking directly to the audience or throwing sweets around. I want to see Rigby on stage doing farce and comedy, not panto…
And that brings us the adaptation, courtesy of Tom Basden (known to most as the writer behind “Plebs”). I must admit, this adaptation was not my cup of tea. Large swaths of the text were generic in a sense that it the action could be taking place anywhere at any time, and that was spot on. But then randomly there would be a contemporary reference completely out of the left field, and they were all distracting and heavy-handed. It’s like Basden can’t trust the audience to work out that he is talking about contemporary issues with police. Toward the end of the play, The Maniac gives a little speech about what happens if power goes unchecked. Sensible and powerful, but then he throws Sarah Everard in there by name. Really? It’s one thing not to be subtle, which is bad enough, but this making of a point, then making it again, then ramming it down your throat, and then double-checking to make sure you’ve swallowed it is a bit much. I like to go home from the theatre and peel apart the layers and the levels of the play, and this robs me of the opportunity to do so.
The last glimpse of the play was also bitterly disappointing. After the curtain call, when everyone was still cheering whilst being up and getting dressed, the counting “bunch of fives” hashmarks were projected onto the set with some verbiage about how few police crimes have been prosecuted. What a strange afterthought…. The attention of the audience has been lost, everyone is cheering for Rigby… This was done infinitely better in “Prima Facie” where, at the end of the show, the binders in the bookcases that made up the set lit up to indicate relevant statistics. But it was done as part of the show with Comer on stage and the audience still engrossed in her character. I am baffled by Basden’s and/or Raggett’s choices here, and the production suffers for it.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.