In the late 60s and early 70s, stirred by the political unrest abroad, a group of young anarchists began a bombing campaign in Britain and became the country’s first terrorist organisation. James Graham’s script is a political history of both sides: the specialist investigative team established to find the Angry Brigade and the group of anarchists themselves.
The action opens in the basement of Scotland Yard, the new offices for a special devision headed by recently promoted Detective Sergeant Smith (Davey Seagle). The Commander (Nicholas Papademetriou) has assembled the team including Henderson (Madeleine Withington), Morris (Benjamin Balte), and Parker (Sonya Kerr) to investigate a string of bombings and threatening letters from a terrorist organisation calling themselves the Angry Brigade. Using alternative political philosophies, rock music, and underground cultures, the team try to get into the heads of these young anarchists before they go too far.
Part police procedural (like Inspector George Gently or Endeavour) and part code cracking (like the Bletchley Circle), the first half of the production has a cinematic quality to its episodic structure. As pressure mounts, the office is slowly filled with evidence of their investigation, papers, books, records, and evidence of their frustration, abandoned cups of tea and smouldering cigarettes. The increasingly urgent letters from the Angry Brigade are projected across the group’s workings, adding to the claustrophobia of the dank basement and this mismatched team.
In the second half, the walls of Sallyanne Facer’s set design fall away, exposing the New Theatre’s bare stage space as representative of radical free living in the Angry Brigade’s hideaway. For the next hour, the core members of the anarchist terrorist group discuss philosophy, politics, violence, gender and relationships, and the means with which they are going to dismantle systems of power in Britain. The brutal diatribes remain interesting through creative staging by director Alex Bryant-Smith, which makes effective use of the space to create alternating feelings of isolation and camaraderie, and through the group’s recreation of politicians’ speeches, recitation of radical manifestos, and flashbacks to personal memories before they started this war.
The two halves establish a clear dichotomy between the old and new world order, capitalism and anarchism, and the dramatic difference in choices between the young police people and the Angry Brigade, but they also operate under quite different tones. The first half is rigid with the characters somewhat rattled at the introduction of different ways of conceiving their lives whereas the second is sneering in its radical rejection of social norms, focusing on both the mindset of the disillusioned youth and the personal misgivings of Anna (Withington) that threaten to unravel their organisation. Both halves overlap in an icy feeling of danger, a terror that settles into your bones.
It’s within the Angry Brigade’s eastern London flat that the actors capture the gritty, complicated underpinnings of the play. Balte as the working class representative of the group is cold and severe in pursuing his political ideologies, even at the cost of interpersonal relationships. His pseudo-partner Anna bears the brunt of the terrorists’ brutality; without the determined distance between herself and their victims, Anna’s faith waivers and she very believably struggles to reconcile her need for love with complete social anarchy.
Bryant-Smith’s direction capitalises on the power of young people and the revolutionary energy the characters possess. At times the action slips into a monotonous high-volume pontification whether in Smith’s dogmatic pursuit of conventional justice or John’s (Seagle) anti-capitalist spiels. But the characters are compelling and their real-world actions understandably resonate.
Michael Schell should be commended for a creative and dynamic lighting design, incorporating subtle uses of colour and spots to shape the narrative, while sound design from Glenn Braithwaite similarly enhanced the production with a historical and atmospheric context. The coordination of design, dialogue, and action was clean and achieved an impressive level of professionalism.
Radicalism and violent extremism is still an active part of the global political landscape so the impetus of works like the Angry Brigade to understand the way ideologies manifest in terrorism is prescient to say the least.
The Angry Brigade is running at New Theatre from October 1st – November 2nd