AN OLD ANGER, SPEAKING TO TODAY
We are short of good political playwrights: they tend to hail from the left and be either depressingly prosey or brainlessly ‘bouffon’ (ISLANDS at this very theatre is a memory to purge). But now we have James Graham. A self-described political ‘geek’, he does not start from partisan anger , though there is in his work great humanity and seriousness. Rather his shtick is fascination with ideas: how they grip people, and get them enmeshed in the complex political and pratical world and go awry. THIS HOUSE was set in the painful hung parliament of 1974; TORY BOYZ centred on a gay, working-class northern Conservative researcher; THE VOTE celebrated the oddity of the polling-station. This time he looks at 1971-2, and Scotland Yard’s hunt for the “Angry Brigade” anarchists. Marvellously retro (he’s talkin’ bout my generation – Mateus Rosé and grungy people in squats grinding on about how women having to do ironing is “The most violent act imaginable” . But in the modern age of Occupy and the Russell-Brand tendency, not to mention jihadis, it is also thrillingly topical.
Graham has researched and reimagined both the police operation and the lives, writings and ideas of the young bomb-makers who targeted banks, police, a minister’s home, the Post Office Tower and the 1970 Miss World pageant. The result, directed with vigour and toughness by James Grieve, is a marvellous play: as rich in ideas as a pudding in plums, compassionate and serious and dryly funny and fascinating. Produced by Paines Plough and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, it has toured and is reworked and cast for the Bush. Two acts use the same four players: first we meet a Scotland Yard unit led by an abruptly promoted DS Smith (Mark Arends) because the bosses feel that only young people can get into the mindset of the terrorists, who fit no familiar criminal template.
He is joined by Morris, snarky and bored (Harry Melling, always good value) and two WPCs who find difficulty not saluting (Pearl Chanda and Lizzy Watts). They read the rebels’ favourite tracts, listen to their music, at one point go into a surreal orgiastic dance of excitement as deduction gets close. Melling and Watts double as witnesses and suspects, and overhead projections show the printed, cardboard threats of the Brigadeers.
There are funny moments – as when “Camden” is breathed with horror as a place where dodgy types hang out – and good aperçus like Morris’ grasp that “the political spectrum is not a line from left to right, it’s a circle . When you go as far left as communism, which believes in equality and classlessness, the tyranny required to enforce such a change moves it all the way back to right-wing fascism” . An anarchist under questioning complains that the British police don’t fight back. “Other countries, we charge, they charge back. But you lot, you stand there rigid in your lines, smiling…the lines will hold. They’ve held for centuries, Nothing to see here’. (ah the nostalgia!)
After the interval the same four play the central Brigade group, holed up in an East London house, three middle-class and one – (Melling again) a working-class Northerner. Each is reacting to a different childhood rage. The interplay is tense, touching, mixing weakness, sincerity, anger, quailing doubt , arrogance, and anarchic nonsense (“Why do there have to be walls?”). No spoilers, but it moves towards an inevitable end when young lawbreakers and young enforcers must meet. Rising manic energy, a bomb-crashing of steel filing cabinets and wild careering through the auditorium are delicately interwoven with tenderness, doubt and sadness. It’s brilliant.