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Review: The Angry Brigade, Bush Theatre - 'heady, intoxicating'

08/05/2015 09:44 BST | Updated 07/05/2016 10:59 BST

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The Angry Brigade at Bush Theatre isn't subtle but it is energetic, powerful and brutally effective in punching its message across, that message being: look around you, people! This isn't freedom and we are not free!

The Angry Brigade were a group of anarchists in 1970s London who sent bombs to a number of high profile targets and this dramatization takes on two perspectives - the first half follows the specially commissioned squad at Scotland Yard tasked with identifying this group, and the second follows The Angry Brigade itself, the two men and two women in the group and the tangled web of personal relationships and power plays that bedevil their attempts to challenge the establishment.

This play bristles with anger and energy, whether it's the punk rock blaring out across the auditorium or the destructive meltdowns that see the set regularly overturned. (Quick mention to the sound design team here, headed by Tom Gibbons, who have done a fantastic job in contributing to the snarling atmosphere). This production just reeks of anarchy.

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The piece is directed by James Grieve and the decision to use the same cast for both the police and the anarchists is a delicious one. It heightens the anguishing challenges facing the two halves of this story - the wavering conviction in the police as they unravel into anarchy themselves and, conversely, witnessing the anarchists come undone by the power structures within their own group, whether these are based on class, gender or education elitism. It's sobering and tragic.

The cast of four works hard to play both sides of the same coin and a stand-out performance comes from Pearl Chandra who succeeds wonderfully in bringing depth and an internal tension to both her roles as a WPC on the rise, and as a lovestruck and conflicted member of The Angry Brigade.

This piece needs anger, of course - that's the source of its energy. But the lack of subtlety in parts does cause some issues.

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Not all the characters move beyond their clichés and some elements are overdone. For example, the Scotland Yard scenes see a lot of the humour hammed up and the drama hammered into melodrama. Such heavy touches swamp the deft writing - there's plenty of dry humour and drama in the text already. Ideally space would have been given just to let the lines land.

Similarly, the second half see a wonderful introduction of song and clever sidesteps into pop culture references. When it's done the first time, it's wonderful. The second and third time, still pretty clever. But by the time we get to the fifth and sixth, it has lost its lustre.

The writing comes from James Graham, who has been incredibly successful in dramatizing his passion for politics, with This House and Privacy being huge successes on the stage, and Coalition a popular television drama. Indeed, another new play from James on voting and elections, The Vote, has just opened at the Donmar.

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The Angry Brigade follows that passion perfectly and, much like This House, James uses the parallels between 1970s Britain, and its fragmented society and economy, to tell a timely story about power and exploitation.

However there were times when this play teeters over the edge and falls into preaching and teaching. For example, a section explaining that politics is a circle and not a linear spectrum came straight from a Politics A-level textbook.

Nevertheless, that this play wears its heart - and its politics - on its sleeve is a real plus. Its lack of apology for its challenge to the powerful in our society is necessary and as (frighteningly) relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

This play is heady, intoxicating and very, very angry. For me though, just taking the foot of the pedal in certain moments would have allowed that balance between anger and tragedy to be more delicately poised.

Bush Theatre, London to June 13, 2015

Image Credits:

1. Mark Arends, Lizzy Watts, Harry Melling and Pearl Chanda ©Manuel Harlan

2. Lizzy Watts, Harry Melling, Mark Arends and Pearl Chanda ©Manuel Harlan

3. Harry Melling and Mark Arends in The Angry Brigade ©Manuel Harlan

4. Mark Arends, Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts in The Angry Brigade ©Manuel Harlan