By Phil Turner
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Accidental Death Of An Anarchist—a biting satire on British policing

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A new adaption of Dario Fo's classic critique of the Italian state takes aim at deaths in British police custody
Issue 2825
A scene from Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, with a cop holding someone up against a wall

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist is on at the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse in Sheffield (Picture: sheffieldtheatres.co.uk)

The murder of Sarah Everard shockingly lifted the lid on the reality of police power in Britain. So Tom Basden’s new adaptation—which uses Dario Fo’s classic critique of the Italian state to talk about British policing—is especially pertinent.

It particularly highlights the thousands of deaths in police custody, such as Christopher Alder, where officers have never been held to account. This Sheffield premiere joyously combines the same biting humour and knockabout fun with a shattering and chilling satire on institutional power.

Fo’s original, set in Milan, deals with the death in police custody of an anarchist rail worker. He was arrested for a terrorist bombing in 1969 that killed 16 people. According to police, he “fell”  from a fourth floor window. In fact, years later it was confirmed the bombing had been carried out by fascists—a timely reminder following the far right’s election victory in Italy.

Fo’s farce succeeds by being hilarious without ever forgetting the terrible events it portrays. Basden and a superb cast draw on Fo’s use of the traditions of Italian theatre, with rapid-fire dialogue and comic timing perfectly executed.

The play centres on an actor-fraudster, known as The Maniac, who is brought to police headquarters just as the officers inside prepare for a judicial review. It’s a second inquiry into an inquiry of the “accident.”

Brilliantly played at breathtaking speed by Daniel Rigby, he poses as a judge to dupe the officers into a farcical re-enactment of the incident.  Rigby is a cross between Eric Morecambe, who he played previously to acclaim, and Vic Reeves. He is suitably anarchic as he exposes the absurd corruption at the heart of the system. Like a clownish Inspector Calls, Rigby never misses a comedy moment before an explosive but open-ended finale. 

There’s great support from Jordan Metcalfe, nicely playing a stupidly thuggish detective called Daisy, and an unbelievably believable superintendent in Tony Gardner. Then there’s Ruby Thomas, the double-dealing journalist, Howard Ward as stressed out Inspector Burton, and Shane David-Joseph as a dim young copper. With a simple but effective set by Anna Reid, the play is impeccably directed by Daniel Raggett.

There’s a Fo-like call to arms afterwards as a screen highlights the 3,000 deaths in police custody since 1970—and just two successful prosecutions. 

  • Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield, until October 15.

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