Opening within a few hours of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton advocating mandatory prison sentences and the cutting of government benefits to people involved in protest action, British writer James Graham’s factually-based The Angry Brigade strikes a disquietingly topical note.
Set in London in the very early 1970s, Graham paints a diptych of a group of far-left radicals and the police squad doing its clumsy best to track them down.
The play just about folds in half.
In its first act, set in a dank Scotland Yard basement, we observe the formation and a new taskforce charged with the uncovering and arrest of a shadowy group responsible for a series of bomb attacks.
In order to do so, the recently promoted Detective Sergeant Smith (played here by Davey Seagle) sets in train a series of novel ideas. The team, he insists, must immerse itself in the radical culture of the time: read the books; listen to the music; smoke a little weed; loosen up.
To catch a radical, you have to think like a radical. The trouble is, Smith hasn’t worked out how not to become radicalised himself.
The second act, set in a squat in suburban Stoke Newington, introduces us to the group the police are trying to snare: two women and two men determined to bring down the Establishment, piece by piece, by violent means if necessary.
The two panels of the play are distinctly different in tone. The first is almost Ealing-comic as the buttoned-up coppers tentatively embrace the counter-culture (and later, very enthusiastically, each other).
After interval, the comic edges soften and the mood turns serious as the Brigade’s members get to grips with internal politics, personal histories and unruly feelings.
Here, Graham’s focus resolves on Anna, in whom some retrograde instincts persist. She feels drawn to monogamy, likes to keep a tidy home and make tea in a proper teapot. And it’s she who can’t help but reach out to the police trying to track her down.
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Directed by Alex Bryant-Smith, this production (the play’s Australian premiere) has the makings of a strong one for the New Theatre once the show has bedded itself in.
Graham’s script requires the same four actors to play hunters and hunted. The core cast of Davey Seagle, Madeleine Withington, Benjamin Balte and Sonya Kerr embrace the high-contrast doubling enthusiastically, though, on opening night, Act I felt the more secure of the two parts, bolstered by sly comic timing from supporting players Nicholas Papademetriou (a starchy police commander), Kelly Robinson (a flirty Miss World contestant) and Will Bartolo as the shocked manager of a recently-bombed high fashion boutique.
The more emotionally complex second act feels relatively unformed – an impression exacerbated by designer Sallyanne Facer’s open-plan set for Act II. That said, the early signs are positive and Withington, who doesn’t have much to get her teeth into as the prim PC Henderson in Act I, is particularly good as Anna’s conflicts and uncertainties deepen.
We might be half a world and half a century removed from the story presented here but The Angry Brigade’s depiction of opposing forces feels very current given that many people are contemplating the necessity of direct action in the face of government foot-dragging on Climate Change – and do so as beefed-up state and federal laws make it ever more risky.