Danelaw is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Peter Hamilton’s play is based upon a real-life attempt in the 1990s of a neo-Nazi group to establish a white supremacist homeland in East Anglia with Chelmsford as its capital. The play was previously produced in 2005 and has been rewritten by the author including some new Dutch neo-Nazi characters to reflect the current upsurge in far-right political movements and fascist inspired violence across Europe.
The play starts in a prison cell where Cliff is serving time for vicious racist attacks. He and fellow minded inmates are recruited by a mysterious aristocratic besuited figure to form the military wing of a movement to set up the breakaway state. The aristocrat turns out to be an MI5 agent whose real intention is to lure and destroy extremist movements. I would not normally reveal such a significant plot twist in a review but since it is revealed in both the programme and in the advertising blurb it is presumably the production’s intention that this be made obvious from the start.
The play moves forward through a large number of short scenes depicting a variety of locations including a scrapyard on the fens and a country house in Gloucestershire. The setting is simple in the Old Red Lion’s restrictive performance space with wooden crate like structures being moved around by the cast to indicate the changing locations which worked well. There were however rather too many scenes which depicted by dimming the lights interrupted the flow. Sound effects were well used although I thought that lighting could have been more subtly used to help depict the different locations.
It is difficult to characterise the style of the play. In many ways it was satire: the characters were overdrawn Warboys, the aristocrat, was an exaggerated Nigel Havers -type toff and the neofascists depicted as vicious and largely stupid. It was difficult to take the neo-Nazi group seriously, they were a sort of Dad’s Army collection of misfits whose enthusiasm matched their incompetence. There were some very funny lines but there was no sustained humour. It included some extremely vicious violence and at the end there was an attempt at pathos and philosophy.
Quality of acting from the large cast was mixed. Dan Maclane as the leader of the neo-Nazi group with his bald head and staring eyes was believable as a psychopathic thug although with some unexpected moments of tenderness. Criag Crosby gave a wonderfully emblematic performance as the MI5 officer whose personal ulterior motives were completely clear without being laboured. I also liked Richard Fish as the hesitant would-be poet blackmailed into joining the gang whose dreadful poetry was one of the comic highlights. Eveynn Craven gave a very nice portrayal of the alcoholic teenager with ambitions to be an actor who is persuaded to become a fascist Norse Queen with her self-justification that an actor needs to experience all manner of life! I did not see the 2005 production but the inclusion of the Dutch Neo-Nazis did not seem to add much to the production.
There was much to like in this production but reading in my newspaper the next day that the head of British counterterror police had said that right-wing extremism poses the fastest-growing terror threat to the UK I felt disappointed that the subject was not given a more substantive treatment.
Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd
Reviewed: 19th September 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★