The Angry Brigade were a part of Britain’s counter-culture in the early 70s. They began as a bubbling and angry undercurrent of a society that was ordered and suppressive. A culture that was driven by consumerism, making the rich richer and led by a cut-happy Tory government. Sound familiar? The Angry Brigade’s anger festered as they protested en masse, watched unemployment rise and found themselves with the utterly debilitating condition of the inability to be heard. Resolving that there’s no such thing as a polite fight, it was time to bring out the big guns or face the alternative of being ground down by a society that would not facilitate them. So a home-grown group of terrorists were born, four-strong, hyper-intelligent and middle class – their identities uncomfortably similar to a reflection of ourselves. James Graham has managed to interweave events of the past with the mood of the present. That’s what makes The Angry Brigade so relevant; that’s why it is so integral that The Angry Brigade is told well.
In terms of raw ingredients it’s off to a flying start. The Bush Theatre itself feels like a renegade institution, taking over an old library and filling it with theatre that is bold, daring and new. James Graham is seemingly impossible to hold back, having written This House for the little known National Theatre and now The Vote starring, well, pretty much every legendary actor the world has ever seen. He is young, he’s political and he’s bloody good. He has crammed The Angry Brigade with every skill he’s got, and it’s funny, satirical and clever. The smartest technique of all is the play’s structure: it is a play of two halves (not just in the obvious way). The first half is in the basement office of a specialist police team who are tasked to hunt down the Angry Brigade. They set about interpreting their motives and getting inside their thought processes and lifestyle. They become tangled in this new world enjoying free love and smoking joints, but they are still trapped within it. The second half takes place in the cell of the brigade (a rented house in Stoke Newington); here the writing becomes free form along with the lifestyle of the perceived anarchists. This half is a reflected imprint of the first. The criminals are people like the authorities and people like us.
This is true in terms of mindset and behaviours, yet they are also played by the same actors – another ideal raw ingredient. Pearl Chanda’s Anna, in the second half, becomes a voice of reason as the Brigade’s initial ambition of working together, for a happier and more peaceful world” becomes increasingly more violent and loveless. Chanda is recognisable and wonderful in the role, delicately dealing with the extremity of being torn between that which she believes, and that which she can emotionally carry. Harry Melling, who’s never let me down on the performance front, spends the first half multi-roling between an anal detective constable, Morris, and a variety of criminals and masterminds. In the second half he plays Jim, whose anger grows in the way the others’ doesn’t. He pumps with frustration, emotion and humanity. Melling’s performance is physical, changing visually from character to character, and doing so so to the finest detail. Vocally, however, he stays pretty much the same, which disappointed me slightly, I can’t lie.
This brings me to the chain of little disappointments that makes the narrative a little threadbare and lacking in impact. Firstly, two of the characters are described in the script (and historically), as being from the north. Yet neither of them have a northern accent, which is jarring. Either give the accent a bash or take it out of the script. Most infuriatingly, it’s presented in the Bush’s thrust space but not directed to accommodate those sat at the side. I’m sure I’d have got so much more out of The Angry Brigade if I’d have watched it full-frontal. As it stood, I missed the mug-shot reveal, I missed the entire final sequence and I missed the explosive segment where the brigade knock the walls of their home down. Theatre isn’t theatre and a message isn’t a message if only a third of the audience can see it.
The Angry Brigade is playing at the Bush Theatre until 13 June. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website. Photo by Manual Harlan.