The Angry Brigade, Bush Theatre, review: a real play of two halves

James Graham's play tackles explosive Seventies' politics

Holly Williams
Thursday 07 May 2015 19:59
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Playwright James Graham is the very much the man of the hour - literally, if you’re reading this review on 7 May while waiting for election news. His play The Vote, at the Donmar, is also showing live on Channel 4, dramatising in real-time the last 90 minutes before polls close; across town, the Bush hosts a transfer of another political outing. The Angry Brigade opened last autumn in Plymouth, but arrives here with a largely new cast.

It’s an uneven work. But that unevenness is, in part, deliberate: a play of two halves, the first is set in the basement of Scotland Yard in the 1970s, with a team of four coppers trying to work out who keeps bombing establishment figures. But the four mug shots of their eventual suspects - the self-proclaimed ‘Angry Brigade’, Britain's little-remembered equivalent to Baader-Meinhof - pay an uncanny resemblance to the police men and women themselves… So it’s not a total surprise when we spend the second half with the four anarchists, played - cutely - by the same four factors.

There’s lots to enjoy here; Graham is a funny writer on serious topics, and the script has his usual mix of ambition and levity. There’s a thrillerish hunt for the criminals in the first half, while the second gallops through direct action, pop-culture parodies, political theory and messy relationships. Small personal moments manage to be both bathetic and heart-wrenching - one of brigade being castigated for wasting money on the highly un-revolutionary item of a teapot, for example.

But The Angry Brigade is also a double-headed beast of a play, and - despite committed performances from the cast, especially a shape-shifting Harry Melling who plays umpteen roles with varying degrees of comic caricature - James Grieve’s production doesn't quite master it.

The first half is played too much as spoof. It takes place in a heightened, cliched version of the Seventies, all kipper ties and wacka-wacka funk. The buttoned-up, narrow-minded, naive police officers feel too easy to sneer at, with their disgust and confusion as they try to comprehend left-wing literature or rock music.

But their stiffly cartoony nature means that one of the more interesting movements within the script doesn't really come off… the police officers begin to loosen up, start questioning their narrow world-view; there’s even an bout of dope-smoking and free-love. But given we don’t entirely believe or invest in them as upright, uptight law enforces, we don’t quite believe their awakening either. Admittedly, Graham gives us less to care about here - we don’t get much in the way of back stories.

No such problems in the second half, which is presented much more fluidly. After they kick the set to shit (“who decided there should be walls?”), the terrorists whirl in and out of their pasts, be that posh private schools or violent fathers. It’s no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit. And a will-they-keep-doing-it - for we begin to see that love is the one thing that cannot bend to ideology, and that human beings might just need some rules and structure after all.

To 13 Jun; bushtheatre.co.uk

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