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FringeReview UK 2023

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Sheffield Theatres and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Genre: Absurd Theatre, Adaptation, Comedy, Contemporary, Dark Comedy, Drama, European Theatre, Farce, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Theatre Royal Haymarket


Low Down

The adage that farce is tragedy speeded up met its greatest progenitor in Dario Fo. In a ferocious new version by Tom Basden of Franca Rame’s and Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, directed by Daniel Raggett in a stunning production now at the Haymarket, the target here is squarely the London Met. And if you slowed down Basden’s brilliant, no-holds-unbludgeoned telling, details prove tragic enough.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist in a new version by Tom Basden is directed by Daniel Raggett. Set and Costumes Anna Reid, Lighting Jay Morjaria, Composition and Sound Design Annie May Fletcher, Video Designer Matt Powell, Casting Director Lotte Hines DCG, Additional Musical Arrangements & Supervision Nick Barstow, Fight Direction Kenan Ali.

Production Manager Juli Fraire, Associate Director George Jibson, Associate Sound Designer Sam Glossop, Costume Supervisor Binnie Bowerman, CSM Pau Ferris, DSM Ray Young, ASM/Book Cover Bella Kelaidi, Head of Wardrobe Amanda Amielle, Dresser Elion Mittiga, Sound Operator Fintan Davies.

Till September 9th



The adage that farce is tragedy speeded up met its greatest progenitor in Dario Fo. In a new version by Tom Basden of Franca Rame’s and Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, directed by Daniel Raggett at the Haymarket, the target here is squarely the London Met.

And if you slowed down Basden’s brilliant, no-holds-unbludgeoned version, details prove tragic enough. What’s ostensibly so surprising is that this landed in the West End. What’s not, is that it packs the Haymarket every night, transferring from the Sheffield Studio and Lyric Hammersmith.

Anna Reid’s forty-five degree edge-on set, squares up to a shabby now. But still with an Olivetti typewriter and metal filing cabinets, it’s beautifully wrought. At crucial points Jay Morjaria’s lighting (with that neon strip pioneered by Miriam Beuther) and Annie May Fletcher’s sound design and music snaps into another realm.

This from 1970, is still Fo’s and Rame’s signature play. It follows the real tumbling from a fourth floor Milan Central police window the previous year of a rail-worker and anarchist falsely accused of exploding a bomb. Pushed? Suicide? The judge refused police explanations and sent an investigator. Posthumously the anarchist was exonerated.

What’s more extraordinary is this isn’t just farce, but nearly verbatim theatre. Fo used extant reports with a light twist. Tragedy. Farce. (Basden though anglicising incidentally keeps English names close to the originals).

Fo, till his death at ninety still an anarchist, hit upon an idea of genius: to present tragic murder as comedy. The result’s as devastating now as then. Actors (abetted by Basden) are still instructed to insert contemporary material and either expatiate on their own lives or rasp other political points, even against Fo, with fourth-wall asides about him.

The latest figures of death in police custody (updated through the run), Just Stop Oil protests, Sarah Everard, a deadly “can’t breathe” quip, other police shootings are vividly denounced by The Maniac, Daniel Rigby. When alone he riffles files with deadly topicality: “Violent protest at Clapham Common… Head-butting a riot police baton while sitting on the floor.”

Rigby is phenomenal, in both his relentless pace and the clarity he brings. However fast neither he nor any of the cast give anything less than an acid-sharp focus of just what’s at stake. At times you almost wish Rigby could apply brakes. But then he’d not be The Maniac.

Rigby strikes platinum too as the man who being a Maniac can’t be charged with all his impersonations by the police team, in particular Mark Hadfield’s Burton. Hadfield mentally chews an inner moustache as the hapless would-be-nabber who speaks out to the audience the fact that the playwright will inevitably be prejudiced against the police. This takes Pirandello’s Six Characters further than anyone but Pirandello might have imagined: there are six characters.

French farce grafted onto commedia-dell-arte hits its stride when the outwitting Maniac takes a phone call when alone, deciding on a new role three flights up in the police station, that very fourth floor. He becomes the examining judge; it’s Tony Gardner’s vicious Superintendent Curry and sidekick Tom Andrews’ dodgy Detective Daisy whom he subjects to a ludicrous range of proofs about what really happened to the anarchist.

At one point Daisy, Curry and Joseph are so stricken by the Maniac’s argument they attempt to hurl themselves out of the window: this lemming-collective amps up the original when only the Daisy character did so. Kumar, Andrews and Gardner are dragged perilously back by one foot.

Where Andrews’ Daisy can only be bullet-headed, Gardner inhabits a battery of Met plausibility. Rational and calculating, he’s chillingly believable under the farceur’s habit. His Curry’s partly no match for Rigby’s Maniac, because the latter has more dialogue than the rest put together.

Ro Kumar’s Agent Joseph appears in both floors and pulls haplessly at a bewildered sanity, in more deconstructive cast jokes. Andrews’ Daisy breathes the essence of ratty braggadocio, riven with credulity. Gardner proves comically vicious with that combination of sententious bribery and putting the boot in beloved of corrupt policemen the world over.

The most miraculous of all set-pieces in the first half must be when the Maniac, recreating events has the whole team singing and marching to the Anarchists’ anthem. This brings the house down but even more difficult is it to begin the second half with the same ramped-up energy which the ensemble succeed in. Annie May Fletcher’s music involves songs Fo himself composed.

Ruby Thomas’ journalist Fi Phelan – Thomas’ previously incarnating PC Jackson takes the sting out of Fo’s self-condemnation of tokenist casting – veers between hard-nosed journalist and appalled complicity with each side in turn as blame and guns are pointed.

It’s Thomas’ Phelan whom the Maniac abets by pretending the opposite, to a denouement that ambushes previous endings. Fo and Basden pull rugs and bombs till the end.

Inflection and blocking dazzle. Rigby governs such narrative as we distrust with a ringing authoritative tone, both slightly deranged and supremely urbane: perfect trappings of the anarchic Fo himself.

But this farce does slow down. And it reminds us that Gillian Slovo’s verbatim Grenfell has been playing at the NT Dorfman at the same time. Its terrible shadows, also ridden by numbers, remind us of other state evils, and paradoxically how serious Fo and Rame are.

We’re left with a rapidly escalating counter silently clacking up the number of those who’ve died since 1990 after contact with the police, mostly in custody. It stands at 1869, but had been 1850 when the play opened in Sheffield. It counts.