Chris Eldon Lee reviews Northern Broadside’s production of ‘They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay’, which at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyne until Saturday 10th November and touring.
This the most screamingly funny and savagely biting adaptation of a Dario Fo farce I have seen in a very long time. Deborah McAndrew pours salt into every running sore in British society today with enough outrageous wit and daft tomfoolery to sink a government. Nothing escapes her Exocet attention. Issues such as zero hours contracts, food banks, skip diving, pot holes, fat cats, identity fraud, Brexit, Carillion, the state of the NHS and the lack of Bobbys on the beat are all ripped wide open with gurgling glee by a play that simply says it as it is. Life is so ridiculous these days, you’ve got to laugh. And the audience could barely contain themselves.
Dario Fo (who personally fought fascism, don’t forget) unleashed his highly satirical play ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ upon an unsuspecting Italian public in 1974. As the rest of world followed Italy into economic crisis, so the popularity of the play spread; a plea from the powerless to those in power. Then came the global financial crash of 2008 and Fo, now in his 80s, redrafted and renamed the play to make even more pertinent. What McAndrew has done (ten years later) is take Fo’s rewrite – and rewrite it again, for Britain today. All the original farcical nonsense happily survives (and is expertly executed) but the satire bites all the more deeply as we all fall into the present day vortex of corruption, incompetence and unaccountability.
The story starts almost innocently. The local supermarket has put up its prices yet again and the downtrodden locals rebel by engaging in their own supermarket sweeps…without stopping at the check-out. Anthea and Maggie also help themselves. After all, “Theresa May has been banging on about free trade”.
The problem is Anthea’s principled shop steward husband mustn’t find out what they’ve done and so the food has to be hidden, and fib upon fib has to be told. And so you have the classic elements of a farce; except what is hiding behind the closed doors is not a scantily-dressed lover, but life-saving sustenance.
The worst thing about it is that it’s all been stolen in single-use plastic bags. How immoral is that! And the added irony is that both Aldi and Morrisons have provided the props.
The hard-pressed police turn up of course – who are also starving – and have a hopeless dilemma on their hands as they try to mop up the effects of austerity.
I must say I tend to be irritated by farces built on a series of spiralling unlikelinesses, but the satirising of so many political absurdities had me falling about. This is Private Eye gone wild. Every MP and CEO in the country should be nailed into a seat to watch it.
The performances are terrific. The feisty Lisa Howard and the ever-wonderful Suzanna Ahmet are so committed to the stupidity of it all that even old clichés like stuffing a loaf of bread up your jacket and pretending you’ve got a bun in the oven feel fresh. Howard tells her lies so convincingly I found myself reacting to the consequences as if I believed them too. Ahmet’s labour pains made me wince and guffaw, both at the same time.
There is a very fine ‘what on earth’s going on here?’ performance by Steve Huison whose character Jack craves “dignity not charity” because “we are better than this”. He’s superbly supported by an equally baffled Matt Connor who can’t work out how his infertile Catholic wife can possibly be pregnant.
And then, just as the audience surfaces for air, on comes the finest clown of all – Michael Hugo – as two separate policemen (a Marxist soft cop and Nazi hard cop) only distinguishable by a part-time moustache. The whole cast milks Fo’s practical joke so mercilessly they too can’t keep a straight face. Hugo later returns as a Female Scottish Funeral Director, elegantly walking across the stage like a dressage pony. He’s like a tiny Tommy Cooper; every move gets a laugh.
There is an important point to all this though. A deeply poignant finale presses home the plight of the poor; who are disappearing from view in such a greedy world.
“When will it get better at bottom?” Anthea asks. I wish I knew.
Photo : Nobby Clarke
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