“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” at Lyric Hammersmith

Neil Dowden in west London
21 March 2023

Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist may have premiered in Italy in 1970 but sadly, its absurdist satire on police brutality is still all too pertinent. This modern adaptation by Tom Baden, first seen at Sheffield Playhouse last year, with its multiple references to recent British police misdemeanours, makes clear the relevance of Fo’s message today, while also relaying the play’s surreal humour in a frenetic farce. The jokes may become a bit relentless and the barbs may lack a truly subversive edge, but the targets are mainly hit in a thoroughly entertaining two-hour show.


The ensemble. Photo credit: Helen Murray.


The play starts on the third floor of a police station with an increasingly frustrated inspector interrogating a conman known as the Maniac – a master of disguise who may be a thespian, a lunatic, or a revolutionary – about his suspicious behaviour, before releasing him when he fails to pin him down. The Maniac then goes up to the fourth floor impersonating a judge who is investigating the “accidental” death of an anarchist who recently fell from a window there. By pretending to be on their side, he gets a superintendent, detective, and constable to re-create the incident, thereby exposing the ludicrous lies they told in their testimony and revealing that they have forced the suspect out of the window.

The original play was based on a real case in Milan of an inquiry into the police killing of a man wrongly arrested for carrying out a terrorist bombing, and a subsequent cover-up. The anarchist background does not resonate much now, but this updated version certainly does in the wake of so many police scandals, including Wayne Couzens’ kidnapping, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard, serial rapist David Carrick abusing his power in plain view over two decades, and a new damning report into racism, sexism, and homophobia in the Metropolitan Police.

But the play’s critique of police wrongdoing is presented in the form of a slapstick burlesque whose comic exaggeration sometimes threatens to submerge the underlying issues in a welter of verbal and visual gags – funny though they usually are. The police here are not only extremely corrupt but extremely stupid, incriminating themselves while being strung along by the Maniac – and even bursting into song at his behest. When he takes on another guise as a forensic scientist – complete with wig and false hand – after an investigative journalist arrives, the ante is upped even more leading to an OTT finale.


The ensemble. Photo credit: Helen Murray.


Director Daniel Raggett marshals the comic mayhem with aplomb in a metatheatrical show that breaks down the fourth wall, with Anna Reid’s police interrogation room design enclosed within an angular box inside the proscenium arch. The overall effect of the re-enactment of the crime – with the Maniac as director/actor, with a “Liberty” bag of props and various costumes, often addressing the audience directly – is of a play within a play.

Daniel Rigby’s full-blooded, intensely physical performance as the Maniac is a tour de force – or farce – as he employs a variety of vocal styles, throws himself around the stage with unbridled enthusiasm, and manipulates the audience as well as the other characters with bravura showmanship.

The rest of the cast are also in fine comic fettle. Howard Ward plays the eyepatch-wearing, bullish inspector, Tony Gardner the angry but confused superintendent, Jordan Metcalfe the hard-hitting but soft-headed detective, Shane David-Joseph the constable who keeps on putting his foot in it while trying to be helpful, and Ruby Thomas the journalist who stumbles on to a huge scoop.

After the manic humour has subsided at the end of the show, some shocking statistics are projected on to the stage: since 1990 there have been over 1850 deaths in police custody in the UK – and there have only ever been two manslaughter convictions.