5 stars out of 5
Tom Basden’s viciously funny version of the classic farce is topped off with a tour-de-force lead performance
Explosive is the only way to describe Tom Basden’s scorching update of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s 1970 dark farce. A bomb is at the heart of the plot, but it’s Basden’s script, breakneck direction by Daniel Raggett and an astonishing lead performance from Daniel Rigby that make this production incendiary.
The play was inspired by a real-life death in custody in Italy when a wrongly arrested train driver ‘accidentally’ fell from a fourth-floor window while being interrogated about a terrorist attack. Fo’s agent of chaos is the Maniac, a serial fraudster and manic exhibitionist who sees all the world as his stage, twists every situation to his advantage and lays bare the thuggish incompetence of the police with mischievous delight.
Basden switches events from 1960s Milan to present-day London, and holds the Met Police’s feet to the flames. He has worked every appalling recent revelation – from selfies with murder victims to spy cops – into a breathlessly rapid-fire script that he has been updated since the production started life at the Sheffield Crucible last year. It will continue to change during this West End run.
There is glinting anger here, a steely fury that this play is still so necessary and relevant. It is reinforced by statistics about police brutality and unaccountability, and the counter projected at the end shows the number of deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990: it ticks up to 1,862.
But the production steers away from po-faced righteousness. Instead, it’s shockingly funny, thanks in no small part to Rigby as the Maniac. A trickster let loose in an already volatile environment, he goes extra-large from the first moment, a Toad of Toad Hall on steroids, smashing the fourth wall with gleeful confidence and showing a fine command of physical comedy. He is both ringmaster and his own mini-cast of characters, shrugging personas off and on – a devilish Puck in polka-dot socks and sandals with a Liberty bag full of props, a booming delivery and a glint in his eye.
Raggett’s skilful direction lets this tornado rip across Anna Reid’s shabby office set without pulling the whole production apart, while the rest of the cast hold firm in their roles as collective straight men as the absurdity ratchets up.
The references – from the resignation honours list to the Public Order Act and TS Eliot – come thick and fast, and the frenzied energy doesn’t flag. Best of all, in maintaining the Maniac’s belief that life is a game and rules are for suckers, it allows us, for two hours, to laugh at the bleakest of situations.