Sequestered away, they talk amongst themselves. They’re young, they’re educated. They whip themselves into a righteous fury. They can’t believe how the rest of the world carries on, without regard to their revolution. No – they aren’t the supporters of the Left, surprised by the result of the general election, they are The Angry Brigade, the Cambridge-educated anarchist terrorists of the early 1970s. Their campaign of 25 bombings caused property damage but only one injury, but they are remembered as ‘Britain’s first urban guerrilla group’.
James Graham’s play is of two completely distinct halves, with the cast in the first half playing a group of young, idealistic, and hurriedly promoted police officers, a secret branch of a task force dedicated to catching the Angry Brigade: rounding up their known associates, interpreting their communiqués (as they styled them) and getting into their heads by experimenting with drugs, music and sex. An intricately designed office with filing cabinets and desks and a big investigation board crisscrossed with red ribbons gives way to the squat of the second half, where the black curtains of the Bush are ripped down, the filing cabinets are knocked down to simulate bombs and the cast take up their roles as the four key members of the Angry Brigade itself.
The form also shifts completely across the divide of the interval. The first half has precisely weighted scenes, a television police drama in a single room, with a charismatic leader and a reluctant but talented crew. They interview suspects and look for patterns, always racing against the clock. In the second half, a single long scene broken with snatches of song, impressions of Tory politicians, and long impassioned rants, is a different beast entirely. Its narrative is driven not by the desire to catch the criminals, but to convince each other of their campaign’s goals again and again, even while one of their number is slipping away from them. Everything neat about Lucy Osborne’s design becomes rugged and heavy and sparse to complement the second half, and Director James Grieve makes both of these different modes work with his talented cast, but excels especially in what my theatre companion called the ‘postdramatic’ second half. More label-worthy is the undramatic first half, which starts with the proposition that a young team is needed to catch these young anarchists, and they, um, do. Scene follows scene without conflict, and while the suggestion is that the team need to become like the Angry Brigade to catch them, the logic doesn’t quite work out that way onstage. By comparison, the second half seems excitingly told and edgy, but its story is actually compelling and sincere – a revolutionary realises she isn’t, not really, and definitely not if it means hurting people.
Mark Arends is held back as the charismatic team leader of the first half, but comes into his own as the charismatic team leader of the second half, and although Harry Melling’s appearance as an older officer makes for a difficult first scene, he knocks every subsequent role out of the park, especially his revolutionary scenes with Pearl Chanda, who gives heart to proceedings as the uncertain activist Anna.
It’s a striking shape for a new play, with two completely different structures jostling for attention, and it doesn’t quite work. For a play with such a generational import placed on it from the first scene, it seems held back by its need for a cast comprised of young actors, even such a talented gang as this, and Graham hasn’t quite convinced me of the relationship between one half and the other. The gang should be the focus throughout, those individuals who placed their ideas above law, safety, order and even the lives of the public. The evidence-gathering and research of those whose job it is to stop them can’t help but pale in comparison.