Danelaw – Old Red Lion, London

Writer: Peter Hamilton

Director: Ken McClymont

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

The Old Red Lion’s new production comes with so many trigger warnings that you climb the stairs to the theatre with some trepidation. Sheets of A4 pasted to the walls above the bannisters repeat the warnings on your short ascent. Scenes of murder! Loud noises! Strobe lighting! Offensive language! You may be disappointed.

Indeed, you have to listen very closely to hear the loud noises, and the murder scenes are more Carry On than Shakespearian. While this play, based on a real case from the 1990s, tackles the rise of right-wing extremists in the country, there’s little here to offend a London audience. There are more laughs than chills.

First seen in 2005, Danelaw opens at the Old Red Lion on the day that the Metro newspaper reports that Britain First, a far right group, is patrolling the beaches of the English Channel to prevent migrants from landing. Also, writer Peter Hamilton has updated his text, which now introduces three Dutch Neo-Nazis to reflect the rise of Fascism in Europe. Danelaw is certainly topical, but it is restrained by long scenes and an imperfect climax.

Danelaw tells the story of Cliff (a menacing Dan MacLane), a prisoner, who wants to create a whites only homeland in East Anglia with Chelmsford as its capital. Cliff recruits his fellow jail-mates Paul and Graham to help in this crusade, and once they are all released they begin their campaign on the banks of the River Lea. Waiting for them are more recruits, reluctant and scared, including Rowena, Cliff’s common-law wife, Jason, Cliff’s brother, and Tara, Jason’s fiancé. Together with the help of the Dutch fascists they intend to recreate a Viking society, noble and ancient, and, of course, very white.

A terrifying premise, but Danelaw is a comedy, and for all the characters’ racist hatred, these villains don’t seem very real. That they think that Viking invaders are the true English people is ironic, but Daniel Defoe was more incisive in his 1701 poem ‘The True Born Englishman’ which lays bare the myth of a pure English race. But if Hamilton’s text is a little unexciting, and, at times, repetitive, this Danelaw does feature some good performances.

Craig Crosbie is very funny as Mr Warboys, the mysterious government minister, and when he’s lounging on the simple set of wooden pallets, he certainly rocks his inner Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is excellent work, too, from Bradley Crees, who plays Cliff’s henchman Paul. Likewise, Evelyn Craven delivers Tara’s lines in an amusing deadpan manner, and her journey from drop-out to Viking goddess is the most interesting strand here. Although only given a few lines, Marcel Hagen is perfect as the accidental neo-Nazi, in it for the violence rather than the politics.

For a small space, having a cast of 11 is surprising, and it’s a credit to director Ken McClymont that the stage never seems crowded, but, while his direction is efficient, it is also leisurely. With more pace, this cautionary tale could be more effective

Runs until 5 October 2019

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