Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Theatre Royal Haymarket review: uproarious farce takes aim at the Met

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

It’s just theatre! It’s not real! That’s what the character known only as the Maniac insists as he throws on increasingly silly costumes, shoves his head through walls and forces a group of hapless, corrupt policemen to sing in harmony. But then, every so often, he spits out some statistic about the Met Police – less than 1% of complaints about the police lead to disciplinary action – and amid the bomb-blast comedy of this institutionally funny play, reality comes crashing back in.

When legendary Italian theatremaker Dario Fo wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 1970 he based it on the real case of a man who ‘fell’ out of a fourth floor window while being interrogated by police in Milan. After successful stage adaptations of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, Tom Basden (ITV’s Plebs, BBC’s Here We Go) keeps the buffoonery and savagery of Fo’s original play, but updates it to become a farce-filled invective against the failures of the Met Police. “It’s bants!” exclaims the Maniac at one point, “like when we take selfies with murder victims.”

After runs in Sheffield and Hammersmith, this isn’t an obvious choice for a West End transfer, but it certainly deserves it. From the off, director Daniel Raggett takes the production at full pelt, with barely a moment of slack in the heady blend of farce, satire, agitprop, polemic and panto (complete with sweets tossed out to the stalls). Designer Anna Reid has created a wonderfully drab, grotty Met office, tilted downwards so that it looks like the mildewy box files and vinyl chairs might come barrelling towards us.

The company (Helen Murray)
The company (Helen Murray)

The supporting performances are great – Tom Andrews as the tough cop, Tony Gardner the anxious police chief afraid of his own shadow in case it turns out to be an undercover journalist – but the show is Daniel Rigby’s, no question.

Rigby plays the Maniac, a hyperactive man who insists he’s in a play, and who pretends to be a pompous judge so that he can investigate the unexplained death of the defenestrated anarchist. Three witless police officers fall for the disguise, and as they become increasingly confused about whether this ‘judge’ is trying to help them or hang them, they begin to incriminate themselves.

Rigby, who has the unparalleled quality of being annoying in the most endearing way, doesn’t just perform Basden’s exquisite script: he blows every single line up, making each one a balloon or a bomb depending how mad he’s feeling.

His performance is a ferocious chatter of lines, gasping for breath between tirades, and he rivals Toast of London for unexpected line delivery, with intonation plucked from some other planet, as if he’s never heard human words before. On top of that he adds beautifully precise physical slapstick: the skit when he tries to step off a table is a comedy masterclass in itself.

Then amid the rattling monologuing of the Maniac, Basden slips in another of those statistics about the Met. They’re jarring, these suddenly solemn lines, but their cumulative power is devastating. Nor are the police the only recipients of Basden’s ire: the right-wing government, the ineffective left, lazy journalism… Basden piles up the corpses of post-truth society. Police brutality was never so funny – but if we didn’t laugh, we’d have to cry.

Theatre Royal Haymarket, to September 9; book tickets here