Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London.

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: Dario Fo, adapted by Tom Basden

Director: Daniel Raggett

A little more than 50 years ago, Dario Fo wrote “a grotesque farce about a tragic farce” skewering the Milanese police for their complicity in the death of Giuseppe Pinelli. Pinelli fell from a fourth-floor window of the Milan police station while under interrogation, and Dario Fo’s response, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was a howl of anger directed at police brutality wrapped up in a madcap farce that has had audiences around the world helpless with laughter ever since.

Tom Basden has performed a brilliant feat of updating the work, addressing the issues of police brutality and deaths in custody with a mountainous array of statistics projected onto Anna Reid’s interestingly skewed stage, and a lot of up-to-the-minute references in the dialogue. At one point, the protagonist moans “I can’t breathe…” and the effect is slightly chilling. But, this isn’t a howl of anger about George Floyd, this is a non-stop, highly physical, very funny farce.

The Maniac (Daniel Rigby) has been arrested for some unspecified offence and runs rings around his interrogator by assuming a bewildering array of roles – flight attendant, naval engineer, minor royal, translator for the Russian Embassy. Does he speak Russian? He does not, a minor quibble. He suffers, he claims, from Istrionomania, the condition of compulsively needing to perform.

He recruits the audience, who don’t exist as far as the police officers are concerned, into his performance as investigating judge, examining the circumstances of an anarchist train driver’s accidental death. He gets them to sing both figuratively and literally – the act one closer is a fine operatic rendition of the Italian partisan’s anthem Bella Ciao. His lightning changes of subject and absurd exposition force the officers to hone their tale of events, to arrive, by a prodigiously roundabout route, at the truth.

The cast is exemplary, the set is beautiful, and the lighting is always effective, especially in the eye-roasting disco flash sequence that opens act two. But there is just one focus of attention; Daniel Rigby and his Liberty bag full of outrageous costumes is the only game in town. He is deft, witty, quicksilver, outrageous, and a brilliant exponent of physical comedy and slapstick. He makes stepping off a chair into an epic adventure. He is extremely funny. The rest of the cast is there to support and feed him lines. In other company, they would be delivering gags of their own, but in this play, they are almost inconsequential.

Half a century on, Dario Fo’s play retains its bravura comic effects. What has gone is the anger and the hope that the play might inspire action. Tom Basden works so hard to itemise relevant contemporary outrages but they feel tacked on, particularly in the rococo magnificence of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, (the Queen Mother’s favourite theatre, according to The Maniac).

This is an excellent romp, but the Marx it evokes is more Harpo than Karl. It remains a grotesque farce, but it is no longer particularly tragic.

Runs until 9 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Farcical, physical, funny

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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