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Live / stage review

Accidental Death of an Anarchist’s hard-hitting messages remain relevant 50 years on

A display of delightful insanity by Daniel Rigby as the Maniac, combined with simple but impactful lighting and set design, makes for a powerful reboot of the 20th-century classic.

12 October 2022 at
Tony Gardner The Superintendent in Accidental Death of an Anarchist Photo by Helen Murray

Tony Gardner as the Superintendent in Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Helen Murray

After just over half a century, Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been rebuilt to better reflect modern-day society and the essence of our police force through dress-up and an outrageous musical rendition of Italian protest song 'Bella Ciao'.

Tom Basden’s new adaptation of the 1970 play, recently staged at Sheffield Theatre’s Playhouse (formerly known as The Studio), has been renovated for a more relatable contemporary viewing. Set in a police station, it sees the Maniac (Daniel Rigby) cause mayhem in disguise as the lord chief justice, pretending to help the the police make a re-opened case on the death of an Italian anarchist train driver seem more credible in favour of the officers. But as the Maniac delves into what really happened on the night of the death, the holes in what has been reported widen.

Designed by Anna Reid, the simple but versatile set has more to it than meets the eye, becoming a canvas for the Maniac’s insanity as he moves from writing on the whiteboard to scribbling notes across the walls. The lighting, as designed by Jai Morjaria, makes an impact before the play has even started. It’s not until the end that the meaning behind the red tally marks is revealed with a short statement: “Since 1970, there have been over 3,000 deaths in police custody in England and Wales. Each tally represents one of these deaths.” We see a QR code linking to the website of Inquest, a charity campaigning for justice for those who have died in state-related incidents.

Rigby has complete command of the stage through what can only be described as his delightful insanity. His performance is captivating, his enchanting, fourth wall-breaking nods to the audience emphasising the cheekiness of the Maniac, needing only expressions and a mischievous grin to evoke laughter. His high energy contrasts with the varying levels of sombreness of his co-stars, and completely mirrors the slightly bewildered, concerned attitude of Superintendent Curry, played by Tony Gardner.

Rigby’s performance also stands in opposition to his sobering declaration of unavoidable truths, a standout moment being: “After Orgreave and Hillsborough and Stephen Lawrence and spy cops and five decades of over three thousand deaths in police custody, the neon elephant in the room becomes impossible to ignore: that no matter what’s going on outside these police station walls, it’s still 1970 in this place.”

Basden’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist is fantastic – a gritty but hilarious commentary on not-so-hidden corruption within the police force. It reveals the disheartening reality that, even though the play is 50 years old, its hard-hitting messages remain relevant, only adding to the case for radical change.

by Victoria Ruck (she/they)
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