This brilliant first production of James Graham’s The Angry Brigade is a play of two halves. The story of Britain’s first urban guerrilla group focuses on 1971 and the setting of a number of small explosions by a small group of anarchists in London.
They target an MP, a Commissioner of Police, an embassy and the Royal Albert Hall where the Miss World Pageant is taking place, hosted by the sexist comedian Bob Hope. It’s a true story.
First, we are in the Police HQ as the newly formed Special Branch is set up to counter terrorism. In a comic and slapstick routine, the strait-jacketed uniforms end up in an orgy, having read Marx and Kropotkin and explored “politics” for the first time.
As if in school class, they struggle to understand the political spectrum and where to place the individualism of the anarchist communiques they’re struggling to decipher.
Are these “terrorists” Left or Right?
The stage is set for an exploration of ideologies and idealism. While the police struggle to maintain decent values of home and family life, the anarchists tear down the walls and burn the hypocrisy of class society.
The point at which a young police woman rails against her enforced holidays with her husband’s family is juxtaposed with the anarchist and poet Anna Mendleson making a candlelit dinner for her would-be lover in their Stoke Newington squat, seeking domestic bliss.
The second half rages exquisitely against capitalism and class society. But, just as with the police, these are four flawed humans struggling with inner torment. The working class Jim Greenfield vividly portrays the domestic violence from his father, who despised Jim’s scholarship to Cambridge University. Angry Brigade leader John Barker, mirroring the same power and control domination, renders Jim inarticulate and pent-up to the point of explosion.
All four are eloquent and thoughtful, seeing through the dehumanising system of wage slavery. Jim’s summary of the violence of capitalism cannot be bettered. But their answer is individualist nihilism and their direct actions no more than an irritant met with the full force of the state.
The Angry Brigade took it upon themselves to “wake-up” the working millions to a better world of peace and love, and destroy the establishment on our behalf. Despite the class tensions of the time, with Heath as prime minister following the betrayal of the unions by Labour through their policy entitled “In Place of Strife”, the play offers little insight into the wider forces at work at the time.
The Angry Brigade operated in glorious isolation and were imprisoned for ten years. We share their intense hatred of the injustice of the system, but wouldn’t it have been better to build mass picket lines with the striking workers at Ford rather than plant a small explosive device outside a Ford car showroom in Gants Hill?