'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' review – Daniel Rigby has extraordinary stamina in this furiously funny police satire

Read our three-star review of Accidental Death of an Anarchist in the West End, starring Daniel Rigby, currently in performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s evergreen satire from 1970 – premiered in Italy but seen the world over – gets an especially manic lease on life in this latest rendering seen previously at Sheffield Theatres and the Lyric Hammersmith. Accidental Death of an Anarchist has now arrived in the West End, and there’s hardly a more energised evening in town.

Whether that sustained adrenaline will appeal to playgoers or eventually pall is surely a matter of individual taste. You can tell that a tireless Daniel Rigby, as the Maniac who keeps events spinning, spent time observing James Corden as part of the much-feted original cast of One Man, Two Guvnors: This production ramps up the pace of that one into overdrive and beyond.

But whereas the Richard Bean comedy found unexpected grace notes that derived from a far-sweeter spot than this one, Daniel Raggett’s current production charts a go-for-broke comic assault course that locates anger beneath the antics.

The play spews venom at the myriad inadequacies of today’s Metropolitan Police, a perspective that I imagine translates across the footlights no matter one’s specific politics. Statistics are presented with gathering force about the grievous state towards which the English state has devolved. (It’s worth noting this is the fourth Boris Johnson broadside I’ve witnessed on stage in the past week.)

And yet, sympathetic as I am towards the polemic on view, I doubt I was alone in yearning after a while for some respite – for a variation in tone to coexist both with the prevailing outrage and with nifty jokes at the expense of the District Line on the one hand and the Fleetwood Mac album Rumours on the other.

The play’s adaptor, Tom Basden, is an actor and sketch artist who knows a plum opportunity when he sees one, and he has afforded Rigby the galvanic, spotlight-grabbing moment that proved a star vehicle for Jonathan Pryce on Broadway back in 1984 in a production that co-starred a post-Evita Patti LuPone.

Resembling a younger Roger Allam, Rigby wastes no time breaking the fourth wall to toss a jacket into the stalls, but not before we’ve been informed of his pronouns and been reminded that we are, in fact, only watching a play.

Elsewhere, the unnamed Maniac puts his head through a side wall of Anna Reid’s aptly drab set and dangles out a window, only to enfold himself within an office chair from where he manages an astonishing forward roll. (I was surprised, in context, to note that two ladders flanking the side of the proscenium arch went unused.)

Posing as a judge to the hapless authority figure halfwits in his midst, the Maniac makes comic hay with a false arm, his madness a Hamlet-style raiment intended to make sense of the engulfing craziness. I didn’t know until this play that it’s illegal to boo inside a theatre that boasts a Royal appellation, as the Haymarket obviously does. (Can that be true?)

Gibes in the direction of “the tofu-eating wokerati” connect up to the concerns of the modern day and not the Italy of terrorist bombings and Giuseppe Pinelli, the onetime anarchist of the title whose fate inspired the play.

The supporting cast has no choice in context but to dial their performances right the way up. Tony Gardner is in especially blustery form as a police superintendent whose command to “calm down” falls on predictably deaf ears, while Mark Hadfield’s Inspector Burton couples some decidedly odd interrogation techniques with the raucous embrace of “Bella Ciao,” a popular song with apposite revolutionary associations. Ro Kumar looks on largely in bafflement, leaving a game Ruby Thomas to field the two female roles.

Rigby’s physical stamina is extraordinary. At a time when many performers are opting out of an eight-show week, you can only applaud his ongoing commitment toward a part that, with luck, comes with the promise of a proper holiday to follow. It’s fascinating to set this show against the new Spitting Image musical playing just streets away which is comparably enraged at society and, as here, aims to find a way to make palatable some punishing modern-day truths.

But in both cases, I couldn’t help tuning out after a while, temperamentally attuned to the material in both cases though I am. “I need a nap,” Hadfield’s Inspector remarks at one point and I, too, felt as if a rest might be nice.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket through 9 September. Book Accidental Death of an Anarchist tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Photo by Helen Murray)

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