Where have the last 42 years gone? I remember seeing Accidental Death of an Anarchist back in 1980 at Wyndham’s in London as if it was yesterday (well, maybe a month ago.) I remember how it entranced me with its flagrant disregard for all the usual rules of West End comedy. I remember how it made me laugh my head off from start to finish. And I remember how it prompted me to write to Gavin Richards, who had adapted, directed and starred in it, telling him of my own family’s recent unjust and unfair brush with the law, knowing that our frustration and anger would fall on sympathetic ears. I’m still waiting for a reply on that one, mind. One of the great things about this play is how it can be moulded to reflect the issues of the day. As long as you have the one accepted constant – which is that police corruption is used to cover up their mistakes/crimes/lies/ineptitude/miscarriages of justice (feel free to add to the list) – then everything else can just neatly fall into place.
Tom Basden’s adaptation of Dario Fo’s original play, at what was the Crucible Studio but is now the newly renamed Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse (that’ll quickly become just the Playhouse, mark my words) firmly places the action in the UK in 2022. I slightly regretted the almost complete eradication of all things Italian from this new version, which includes the way that Dario Fo got his characters to question Fo’s own inadequacies as a writer – so funny in the original. The Maniac used to proudly boast of his supposed association with the University of Padua; now he is (allegedly) an alumnus of Wadham College, Oxford. And with the recent electoral success of La Fascista Meloni as Italian Prime Minster, maybe they missed a trick.
Nevertheless, this British version still works fine, with a full panoply of the methods the British police employ to cover their collective a*ses still rigidly in place. Fear of the media, fear of losing one’s pension and fear of getting found out still rule the roost. Whilst there’s a police WhatsApp group somewhere on this earth, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is not going away. And there’s still a call to action at the end of the play, in true Fo style, with websites and QR codes for the audience to download and explore at their post-show leisure. Remember, it was Fo who created the whole idea of Can’t Pay Won’t Pay for when capitalism just gets too big for its boots.
Fo’s original 1970 play was inspired by the death of an anarchist railway worker, Giuseppe Pinelli, who “fell” from a police headquarters window in Milan. Apparently, the window was already open (it was midnight on a freezing cold night). Apparently, he jumped (the autopsy showed he sustained an injury to the nape of his neck during his fall). Apparently, one officer tried to hold him back and ended up with one shoe in his hand (he was wearing two shoes when he landed). Apparently, they lied. Using appropriately anarchic humour, the ridiculous excuses of the law fall away before our eyes; as a result, what is in reality a truly horrific killing by the police becomes a hilarious, nonsensical farce on stage highlighting their corruption.
The performance we saw was only the second preview, so please take that into account, gentle reader, although I doubt there is much space for last minute changes in the production. Anna Reid has created a stark but functional fourth floor office – later to become a third floor office by means of a pen and some window shenanigans. Tom Basden’s adaptation has fifty years of police corruption to mock; the longer the time since it was first written, the more corruption there is to play with, I guess. By necessity, this police force hasn’t espoused technology to the extent they might have, because nothing looks more extravagant than loose sheets of paper in a file being flung into the air. Given the farcical unpredictability of the body of the play, Basden gives us a relatively straightforward conclusion, whereas Fo gave us two alternative endings, with the Maniac asking the audience which of them they would prefer. But the whole show is full of brilliant theatrical tricks, right from the beginning when the opening music is turned off, to the “reappearance” of the Maniac at the end – and to say more about them would just spoil it for you.
It’s a tour de force by Daniel Rigby, who gives a terrific performance as the Maniac, adopting various guises, voices and personae in his quest to befuddle the police (to be fair, not that difficult a job with this lot). It’s a very demanding role, but he squeaks so many brilliant comic moments out of the most minor opportunities, that he’s a joy to watch. I particularly liked Jordan Metcalfe as the clearly guilty detective Daisy, shiftily avoiding gaze and readily agreeing to clutch at half-baked straws. Tony Gardner is excellent as the outwardly respectable Superintendent, with an unscrupulous ability to forget whether he was there or not, depending on where there was or what he was doing there at the time. Ruby Thomas is great as the journalist Fi Phelan, defending her inherited wealth by admitting to owning only one horse and reading The Guardian, and there’s terrific support from Howard Ward as the exasperated Inspector Burton and Shane David-Joseph as the unintelligent Constable Joseph.
As relevant and as telling as ever, the play can still make you hoot with laughter yet be aghast at its subject matter. A glorious mixture of silly and serious, and still a classic of 20th century drama. A must-see!