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Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Oldham Coliseum, Reviewed

Joan Davies reviews Dario Fo's classic play and finds the muddled references grating

Written by . Published on March 14th 2014.

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Oldham Coliseum, Reviewed

POLICE officers don't tell lies (well, most don't). Not in Britain. Not in modern Britain. If they did this adaption of Dario Fo’s classic farce Accidental Death of An Anarchist might be believable. 

Relocating the show from late-sixties Italy to modern Britain, doesn’t help. The reference to Sussex levels and Theresa May grate against the still included Italian names and references to Milan.

Oldham Coliseum provides an updated largely-anglicised version of Dario Fo’s most popular play. Combing farce elements and characters based in the Italian tradition of Commedia del Arte, Accidental Death is based on the true story of attempts to frame an anarchist railway worker for a bombing which had in fact been instigated by right-wing extremists attempting to smear their opponents. The play was a massive 1970s hit in Fo’s native Italy, and later worldwide, during the Thatcher/Reagan years. 

(Left to right) Leigh Symmonds, Matt Connor, John Elkington(Left to right) Leigh Symmonds, Matt Connor, John Elkington

Like all farce, it builds its success on drawing in the audience to a series of highly improbable, even ludicrous, events.

The Maniac (the protagonist) has been arrested for impersonation. Defeating lax supervision in the police station, he relishes an opportunity to achieve his ambition of impersonating a judge; one is imminently expected as part of an investigation into the death of an anarchist who fell from a fourth floor window while in police custody. Cue plenty of classic police stereotypes exhibiting a predictable collection of character faults and a history of bending the rules.

The Maniac, building on their terror of exposure, encourages them to concoct a series of wilder and wilder explanations for the anarchist’s ‘accident’, before knocking each theory down with simple logic, a logic which should have jumped out at any law enforcement team from the outset. Then a journalist appears. 

Italian audiences in the seventies would have been familiar with the back story. Kevin Shaw’s direction makes everything clear to modern British audiences. Strong performances throughout allow the key points to be strongly signalled while maintaining the track of comic absurdity performed with bravado, ludicrousness and a touch of slapstick. Foxton’s design, a classic and dull timeless office incorporates a nifty floor-change device. 

Police officers Leigh Symonds, Andonis Anthony, Matt Connor and John Elkington play to the stereotypes with conviction and a hint of knowingness. As The Maniac, Jack Lord has the crucial role. He makes an impressive start, sharp and speedy and genuinely funny, yet managing at the same time to deliver the essential plot information. The audience engages with him from the start. Part way through the first act the pace slows a little and the cast find it harder to draw the laughs. This will probably recover during the run. 

(Left to right) Isabel Ford, Matt Connor, Leigh Symmonds, Jack Lord, Andonis Anthony, John Elkington(Left to right) Isabel Ford, Matt Connor, Leigh Symmonds, Jack Lord, Andonis Anthony, John Elkington

The second act adds the press to the mix. 

The production is enjoyable, with excellent performances, a good few laughs and excellent story telling. But there’s something missing. Fo’s farce entertains as part of a process which encourages his audience to question conventional beliefs and challenge authority. It’s this that is lacking and without it the show is just another farcical comedy, and maybe not as funny as the best. 

In earlier productions The Maniac cajoled the police into joining him in singing anarchist songs. Getting them to salsa is entertaining, but completely lacks the irony. Relocating the show from late-sixties Italy to modern Britain, doesn’t help. The reference to Sussex levels and Theresa May grate against the still included Italian names and references to Milan.

The times are so different too: our attitude to left and right disputes, police corruption and journalistic zeal has changed and our response to bombing atrocities has changed considerably. For the play to work the audience needs to have retained some belief in the power and principles of investigative journalism. We need to have something of an expectation that journalists seek the truth: more Woodward and Bernstein than Rebekah Brookes. In this production we get a potential Brookes, though with less hair, played with steely determination by Isabel Ford.

Fo’s authorship of the play allowed some freedom over the precise text, and different productions over the years have used different endings. My preferred option, the double ending, forced audiences to choose. One ending horrified audience’s liberal sensibilities, while the other allowed the corruption to continue unabated. With that ending, audiences leave the theatre debating their own response to terror and to corruption after an evening spent laughing. 

Follow Joan Davies on twitter @joand7

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 22 March 2014.

Tickets here. Tickets from £16 (concs £13.50, Under 26s £5)

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