Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London – until 8 April 2023
Daniel Rigby won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the beloved comedian Eric Morecambe in a 2011 TV film. The spirit of Morecambe – endearing, absurd, inspired, with a slight edge of danger – permeates Rigby’s performance in this savagely brilliant reinvention of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s police corruption satire. Not that this is an impersonation, but it is an unmissable, astonishing example of a master comic at the very height of their powers, and if there’s any justice, Rigby should be picking up a fair few awards for this too. Simply and irresistibly, his performance here establishes him once and for all as the preeminent comedy actor of his generation.
Rigby’s character is referred to simply as “The Maniac”, a feverishly intelligent, shape-shifting, loud-mouthed iconoclast in police custody who runs rings round, then turns the tables on, his dim-witted interrogators, who themselves are under investigation for the unexplained death of a suspect, hence the title of the play. The 1970s Italy of Fo and Rame’s original becomes present day London in Tom Basden’s dazzling, excoriating new version, packed with colloquialisms and modern references to the Inequality Bill, Black Lives Matter, climate change demos etc. To all intents and purposes, this is a new play, and a pretty thrilling one at that.
If the rest of a superb cast don’t have as much to sink their teeth into as Rigby – although Tony Gardner’s magnificently venomous Superintendent who marries dishonesty, aggression and fecklessness to sublime comic effect, comes pretty close – they are all inhabiting the same twilight world where anything could happen (and usually at high speed and maximum volume) but is taken deadly seriously. From the simmeringly nasty but bone-headed senior policemen of Howard Ward and Jordan Metcalfe, to Ruby Thomas’ Sloane Ranger newspaper reporter and Shane David-Joseph’s delightfully gormless constable, nobody plays for laughs, and the combination of deadpan and delirium ensures that a delighted audience hardly ever stop laughing.
At the centre of it all is Rigby, conducting the proceedings like some lunatic maestro: whether dressed as an archbishop, or constantly breaking the fourth wall, or manually making changes to the set, encouraging his colleagues to hurl themselves from an upper window to certain death, donning a fright wig, eye-patch and fake wooden hand to impersonate a wayward cop, or whitening his hair and adopting a mirthless staccato laugh to portray an ancient judge, or randomly punching a hole in the office walls with his head, this is an exhilarating, tour de force demonstration of comic bravura and riotous invention. There’s face-pulling, funny voices aplenty, multiple accents and strange physicality, yet miraculously never once does it feel overdone. Nor, once the manic machinery of the play gets into gear, does it even feel that far-fetched, and there is, crucially, a kernel of truth amongst all the madness that makes the entire proceedings all the more hilarious and, ultimately, chilling.
Chilling because, alongside the rollicking erudition and high precision clowning of both the play and Daniel Raggett’s flashy but focused production (first seen at Sheffield in the latter part of last year) runs an engorged vein of white hot fury. For all it’s gleeful meta-theatricality (The Maniac confesses to constantly feeling as though he’s performing to an audience and behaves accordingly throughout) and irresistible comedy, the piece is deadly serious on the subject of police corruption and, by extension, the poison seeping into society. Basden’s adaptation feels queasily up-to-date (the Sarah Everard case is briefly referenced at one point) and lets neither the audience nor the all-too-flawed characters off the hook. In a breathtaking final moment, the walls of Anna Reid’s ingeniously realistic yet flamboyant set are engulfed by a giant projection proclaiming the staggering statistic that, between England and Wales, there have been 1850 deaths in police custody since 1990. Now that is chilling.
Is it a farce? Is it a satire? Is it a scalding social commentary dressed up in rambunctious comedy? It’s all these things, and it’s absolutely wonderful and worrying, rendered totally unmissable by Daniel Rigby’s ferocious, scenery-gnawing central turn. Between this and the transfer to the National of the glorious hit musical Standing At The Skys Edge, also first mounted in Sheffield, I’m beginning to think there might be something in the water in South Yorkshire. Anyway, you need to get to Hammersmith.