Agnes O’Casey looks like she is going to be a star

Television: Sean O’Casey’s great-granddaughter is riveting in BBC’s Ridley Road

Agnes O'Casey: ‘It’s so rare and lucky to be able to hear your great-grandad’s thoughts and feelings. I feel like I have a relationship with him.’ Photograph: Pip Bourdillon

Agnes O'Casey: ‘It’s so rare and lucky to be able to hear your great-grandad’s thoughts and feelings. I feel like I have a relationship with him.’ Photograph: Pip Bourdillon

 

Agnes O’Casey looks like she is going to be a star. And in the BBC’s new Sunday night drama, Ridley Road (BBC One, 9pm), she delivers a gripping and often unnerving performance as an apparently naive young woman drawn into the through-the-looking glass world of political extremism.

Just how extreme is revealed in the first scene as we see Vivien Epstein (O’Casey) joining what seems to be her husband and child in an enthusiastic Nazi salute in suburban Kent. This is obviously a shock as the setting is an early-1960s UK supposedly swinging to the Beatles and the Stones rather than fighting for their Reich to party.

And there are further surprises as flashbacks reveals Vivien is part of a large Jewish family from Manchester, one whose household includes a close relative who barely escaped Hitler’s death-camps.

O’Casey is the great-granddaughter of Sean O’Casey and studied at the Lir Academy in Dublin (though born and raised in the UK). She clearly picked up a few things at Lir and is engagingly nuanced in a drama based the true story of Jewish activists infiltrating Nazi groups in postwar London.

She is introduced as a wide-eyed ingenue. But when she dyes her hair blonde and poses as a Nazi, she is ferociously convincing – to the point where you can’t help wondering is it really an act or has she been seduced by the dark side?

Agnes O'Casey in Ridley Road
Agnes O'Casey in Ridley Road

Vivien has fled to London to escape a stultifying engagement and to hook-up with her mysterious paramour Jack (Tom Varey). She is surprised, to put it mildly, to see him shouting anti-Jewish slogans at a rally by the Hitler-worshipping National Socialist Movement in Trafalgar Square, egged by the group’s leader (Rory Kinnear).

Jack is living a double-life. By day he works in the rag trade (Vivien’s father owns a clothes shop). By night he goes deep under-cover as an anti-Semitic thug, participating in arson attacks on Jews in London.

But he vanishes after his cover is seemingly blown during a confrontation with the 62 Group, a militant Jewish organisation led by Vivien’s uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan). Vivien convince Soly that she can track Jack down. First she poses as a bottle-blond neo-fascist straight out of a Leni Riefenstahl double-feature. Next, she charms her way into the inner circle of the National Socialist Movement and its chief goon, Colin Jordan (Kinnear).

A tale of populist nationalists with a shopping list of historical resentments and a thuggish army in the shadows obviously lands more forcefully today that it would have several years ago.

And Dublin-born director Lisa Mulcahy (Red Rock, The Clinic) and writer Sarah Solemani don’t skimp on the winks towards present-day events. In an address to racist Londoners, an Enoch Powell-esque figure declares it’s time to “take the country back” – a line clearly intended to be understood in the context of Brexit and its mantra of “take back control”.

That all this was happening as London was embracing the counterculture and new freedoms such as the pill is obviously ironic. And Solemani leans in to the contradictions. In her day job at a hair salon Vivien has a taste of a new Britain: multi-cultural, hip and open-minded (it does the show no favours that Manchester is clearly a stand-in for London).

Yet lurking in the shadows are reactionary forces whose anti-immigrant zealotry will seep over the decades into the mainstream of British politics. And so , in addition to functioning as a taut thriller, Ridley Road is a warning as to what can happen when rabble-rousers promising easy answers to complex problems are ignored until it is too late.